Friday, October 9, 2009

Creative Nonfiction

On Berries and Their Preservation

Last summer passed in a purple haze -- though my drug of choice was a little on the sweet side. The upper ocean-side corner of Oregon, just west of the Cascade Mountains, is a soggy paradise where soil and sun and mulling rain conspire to produce the plushest berries on the continent. It was my first summer spent at home since turning eighteen. I confess I went a bit mad. Five straight years of Idaho's sagebrush summers will do things to a nice Pacific Northwestern girl. I couldn't get enough of that ripe, sticky tang.
My father and young siblings observed my record-breaking intake with mounting disbelief, predicting acid overload and gastric disaster. But Julie, my stepmom, laughed at my enthusiasm -- and encouraged it. We sneaked off to the local u-picks, morning after misty morning, always racing the weariness and pain which would usually level her before noon. She was in week four of a sixteen-week course of chemotherapy when berry season began. Picking soothed her, she said, though her shredded intestines didn't permit her to eat much fruit.

"Being outside," she'd say, "in the morning air, with the birds, and a full bucket... I feel like all's well with the world. Besides," she'd add with a smile, "you're eating enough for both of us."
I certainly was. For three months I glutted my way through each berry in its turn. Strawberries -- Hood strawberries, or forget it -- come first, lumpy-headed, flooding the mouth so syrupy-quick the tongue burns hot for an instant. Raspberries next, needling the jaws on their way down. Then the dear sweet blueberries, which grow thorn-free at eye-level in the most accommodating little bunches, tumbling en masse into the bucket at the touch of a skillful gatherer. I loved them all.
But it wasn't enough. I knew it wouldn't last. I wanted to seal up my summer for later enjoyment; I wanted to bring Oregon's crown jewels with me, back here to the desert. Julie was a seasoned jelly-maker. Canning jars were on sale at Wal-Mart. And the big cane berries were coming on hard.
We planned our campaign carefully. The day after her next treatment, when the steroids lacing her chemo cocktail still had her system ramped and buffered against fatigue, we left a sleeping household behind and headed for farmland. We picked for hours, shedding layers as the sun rose, grateful for the groomed rows of broad-leaved brambles that towered over and shaded us. Black-skinned, red-blooded marionberries. Fat, lusterless boysenberries. Loganberries long as my thumb. We picked enough, and kept right on picking. We bolted straight through Too Much, took a sharp turn at Ridiculous, and arrived at last at Utter Insanity.
"Don't tell Dad," Julie muttered as she wrote the check. Ninety cents a pound, and we were still blowing the budget. I felt giddy as a bank thief as we loaded the trunk and made our getaway.
The kitchen was cool and welcoming; we had scrubbed and sterilized it the night before in preparation. We washed, tied ourselves into aprons, and laid out our bowls, spoons, and measures with surgical precision. Julie showed me how to bind the berries in fine white cheesecloth and hang them over a bowl. Suspended there, they smothered in their own weight, tender skins hemorrhaging and draining.
"Let them drip," she chided, when my impatient hand attempted a surreptitious squeeze. "You want only the juice, and you want it clear, concentrated -- like wine."
Turns out patience is the one great secret of jelly-making; the rest is all there on the yellow back of the Sure-Jel package. The cook need only bring to the kitchen a stout perseverance -- and, if desired, an appreciative eye for the magic of the process.
Once collected, the rich, glassy juice is splashed into a pot and boiled with gelatin and a little butter. At the right moment sugar is added, which stalls the boiling; the liquid thickens and darkens and seems to turn on itself, brooding and panting like something alive. Stir, and stir, or the sugar will burn; spoon through rosy foam to gut the deep, rolling red. Get drunk on the color, the motion, the smell. Bring the pot to a second, howling crisis, then funnel it quick into clean warm glass. Once metal-capped, the jars are ready for final processing: a five-minute immersion in hot bubbling water.
Night had fallen by the time we finished our last batch. We were spattered and soaked with that hard-won juice, which started out a wet, raw red and then faded to blue and finally grey as it dried. The gradation of color on skin became a clock, marking the layered labor of hours. The stains on Julie's hands were at the purple stage and matched exactly the strange bruises there -- hallmarks of the chemotherapy that disturbed her almost as much as the baldness. I admired her long, tapered fingers and delicately dimpled knuckles as she tightened the silver ring around the neck of each finished jar -- fifty-two in all. Water droplets gleamed white against her darkened skin. I labeled each lid, she adjusted her hot pink bandana, and we filled up the pantry with tomorrow's perfection.

    15 September 2009


maranda said...

Beautiful, Annie. Simply beautiful. I miss your words.

Annie McNeil said...

Thank you so much, Mar! :) I miss yours, too.

Kathleen said...

This is so beautiful, Annie. It's everything about writing and cooking that is so true. You're so talented.