Monday, June 17, 2013


Summertime....and the living is easy...not.  Not if you're a parent with kids participating in swim team, baseball, softball, basketball,  swimming lessons, vacation Bible schools....and this is just the list I remember from being a mom myself.  Probably not complete.

When Lee, Ann, and Ben were kids, we too joined the ritual progression of days of summer.  No sooner had we celebrated Memorial Day than we headed to church for two weeks of Vacation Bible School (minus that Monday).  Three hours every morning, after rushing through calf chores and hanging out the wash, coming up with at least an inkling of a plan for lunch to take to the field. Back then, we would still be planting beans that last week of May and first week of June. The church would be full of rambunctious kids, lining up in the warming morning sunlight, filing into the pews, reciting the pledges to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible, memorizing the Bible verse for the week, singing a song, watching a filmstrip (remember those?!) about mission work at home or abroad.  Surely the last filmstrips created were made for Vacation Bible school curricula in the '80s. After all, when I was in elementary school two decades before, filmstrips and clickety clackety super8 movies were cutting edge media treats and the preferred way to spend the last hour of a prematurely hot late spring school day.  The movies were jerky black and white affairs; the filmstrips had the advantage of living color....

God in His heaven alone knows if hearts were changed those many weeks those many years ago.  But life on earth has been richer for our family because of the great cooks who provided "treats"for the teachers and helpers during the recess breaks when the kids were playing 4 square and Red Rover outside.  Many of the family favorites originated from recipes shared by the ladies of First Baptist....whether its Cream Cheese Coffeecake or Phyllis' Coffeecake, I say a thankful blessing for their talents now and back then; these baked goods have entered into family legend and, forgive me my presumption, Lord, have even provided a little foretaste of heaven for us sinners. Crafts may come and go and little children grow into teachers and leaders in their own rights, but food for the body and food for the spirit can indeed come from the same source.

In the natural progression of the season,finishing the dinner dishes and hanging wet laundry on the line sent me to the corner cabinet for a colander and empty ice cream buckets.  Sure as the sun coming up, the strawberries would be ready the second week of Bible school and the first opportunity to pick them was after lunch.  Warmed by the morning sun and fed by seasonal showers,  the first June bearers would be plump and firm, filling the buckets quickly. By the end of the two weeks, the increasing heat would take its toll; while the last berries were exceedingly sweet, they were also soft and slightly shriveled.  If June bestowed one of those two or three inch storms, or I skipped a day of picking, the toads would take their cut of the crop,  just like they would later in the summer with the ripe tomatoes.  Worse still was the fuzzy gray mold (botrytis) that made anyone helping in the patch drop an offending berry like it was scalding hot.

For years I had a nice patch of spreading ''Earliglow" berries in the garden, but over time drought and age led to its decline.  Late afternoons there were worse tasks than sorting out berries in the cool of the air conditioned kitchen while the kids took turns helping or not.  At some point that cool kitchen became a boiling cauldron as the strawberries bubbled and foamed in the 5 quart Rever
eware pan that was my chosen vessel for the making of jam.  Any jam that didn't set was fair game for strawberry sundaes...but not until we were finished eating fresh ones under two scoops of vanilla! The privations of a spring of mere sandwiches were buried and forgotten under an abundance of strawberries and ice cream before bedtime...

It isn't easy to remember the June days before we potted mums; we've had fall crops to water during the summer since Lee was in high school raising asters for her FFA project.  But before that, June meant endless days of mowing grass, weeding in the garden, trips to the library,  a few ballgames and the periodic gatherings to pick, pit, can, freeze, or jell any number of the glorious juicy fruits with which June can abound.

Some years rain the first week of June kept the temperatures moderate and soil moisture abundant enough to ripen big fat black raspberries with more fruit than seed, soft, tender, exploding upon impact with the royal purple of jam berry fruit. Black raspberries have always invited indecision: whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of seeds in your teeth from berry cobblers and jams or to take arms and turn them purple running the juice through a sieve with the wooden pestle or jelly bag.  Blackberries left no such choice; easier to pick, but impossible to separate from their hard white cores, they were rinsed and thrown into the pot for jelly.  With a supply of SureJell and 20 of so pounds of sugar, the sweat, the ticks, the barbs and scratches would waft away out the open kitchen window on a steamy cloud of the essence of June.  Well.... maybe NOT the sweat.....

I've always felt those pint and quilted half pint jars of fruit jams lining the counter seven by seven held a hidden measure of the country that bore them: some internal glow produced independently of the translucence of fruit and light.  Whatever food experts say, a homemade jam has always been a creature removed from its store bought kissing cousin, long before such distinctions became something writ in stone.

Perhaps this feeling has its origin in the uncertainty associated with home made jam.  The hurdles are myriad: frost, hail, fungus, slugs, toads, mold, heat, drought...and all these must be overcome before operator error is even an option!  For many years, I'd follow the directions in Joy of Cooking and carefully hover over the pan of burbling berries, watching the candy thermometer with one eye, the timer with the other, and trying to pull the trigger on what constituted coating the knife or forming a sheet that released just two drops to the pull of gravity.

And the results were just what you would expect from this decision making process:  sometimes the jam would form a substance the consistency of Gorilla Glue, sometimes a spoon would break before it would measure out a portion, and sometimes the ruby substance would have an inner light, like old whiskey or brandy...and pour out with the same viscosity!  At this point, I would declare victory and proclaim the substance the world's most cream sundae syrup.

There are vintages for jam, you know.  In front of our house in Orland Park grew a crabapple of unknown parentage or provenance.  It was no more than ten feet tall with an equal spread.  When spring arrived it was aflutter with pale applepink blossoms on branches crooked as a Japanese print.  The crabapples would grow to the size of a small onion and the shape and hue of a munchkin sized Lodi apple by late July /early August at which point we would pick them, quarter them, and cook them until, somehow, magically ( I was not privy to this part of the process)  a pan of juice somewhere between bordeaux and merlot  in hue with an equally wine dark fragrance permeated the whole house with a deep concentrated essence.  When the pectin and heat cooperated, the resulting jelly was like none I've tasted since: tart, succulent, sinuously sliding on top of the cool slab of butter on a piece of toast or folded like taffy in between two layers of bread.  When the chemistry went awry, a knife could be broken like the Sword in the Stone in the effort to make a sandwich.
The mysterious crabapple remains a legend in my own mind, a chimera, the like of which I don't expect to taste again on this side of heaven's river...

On a less Arthurian note, the year 1983 was the first and best year for apricots in my memory. We didn't have a tree out at the farm at that time, but the delicate and daring blooms of the aged apricot at Luretta's survived the perils of frost that soon-to-be drought year and bore a bounteous harvest of soft orange fruits.  One characteristic of apricots is the narrow window between fruit on the limb and drops on the ground. That year I ran apricots through the food mill in our kitchen for days with two little girls under my feet, boiling the four cups of fruit with the four cups of sugar for the precise amount of time til the SureJell was added, boiling again until the angry foam could not be stirred down, steaming my glasses and turning my face red. For years after, the stickers I used on that jam stuck particularly well on the jars and I could reminisce as Proust did about his Madeleines. Strong is the pull of sweets on one's memory.

One year, and one year only, I picked gooseberries with Millie at Don and Gussie Van Leuven's on Spruce just a block or two from where we now live.  Have you ever dealt with a gooseberry?  One does it only for love: in this case, for my husband, who still adores a gooseberry pie.  Grandma Eunice cooked gooseberry pies: puckery and astringent without a heavy dose of vanilla ice cream.  Gooseberries themselves are lovely as art glass; green spheres striped like a beach ball with a band of white.  But they come off the shrub with a tiny woody stem and this must be removed before they can be transformed into anything remotely edible.  You think stemming beans, hulling strawberries, or pitting cherries is bad?  These pale in comparison to stemming gooseberries: hence, a gooseberry pie is truly a labor of love.

Some time between Father's Day and the 4th of July, the pie cherries ripen.  Years past, Grandma Hurst had a large cherry tree on the north side of her driveway. Cherry picking was a family undertaking; one of the guys would bring the loader tractor down from the Corner and lift someone high into the branches to cheat the birds and  pick the ripest, reddest cherries from the fragile, brittle upper reaches of the tree.  Someone more athletic and daring would climb those same branches and pick cherries til their ice cream bucket was full, then hand it carefully down to the ground to be handed to Grandma Eunice and anyone else  delegated to watch babies and pit fruit.  Is there anything more American than a cherry pie?  Don't get me wrong; apples are the most versatile and forgiving of fruits, marvelous from tree in fall til the last apple butter is consumed in spring.  But cherries are ripe for Independence Day and declare their allegiance to our country with hot dogs and fireworks. And don't forget the whole mythical Father of our Country thing.  In my mind, each time I stand high on a stepladder with a bucket over my arm and juice running down my arm, it is  decades ago and  I'm perched in the crook of an ancient cherry with kids chasing through the overgrown lilacs below at Grandma and Grandpa Hurst's.

 These are the fruits of summer, past and present.  How alive and vital and sensate and immediate they seem,  past or present, as iconic as Easter eggs or Christmas trees but not commercial, not creatures of man's imagination.  Each year we stand and harvest fruits, I am acutely aware the perfection of their amazing devising and our undeserved  bounty:

"By Him the rolling seasons
In fruitful order move;
Sing to the Lord of harvest,
A joyous song of love."

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