I made my first jar of jam at the age of seven. The summer after first grade, my cousin, Kay, and I spent some time with our maternal grandparents on their dairy farm. Grandma took us out to their garden one day and helped us pick a large bowlful of raspberries. Back in the house, she showed us how to clean and mash the berries. We measured them into big bowls, and then she helped each of us make a batch of jam.
I can still remember standing on a stool next to the stove with one of grandma’s big aprons wrapped around me stirring the jam with one of her long-handled wooden spoons, and Grandma standing right behind me. After the jam was done, she ladled it into leftover baby food jars and sealed them with paraffin for us. (I know; I can hear the gasps from here. But it was 1962, everybody sealed jams and jellies with paraffin. And use any jar they had available. I remember my grandmother still had the old fashioned jars with the rubber rings and the clamp-down lid.)
I’ve been canning regularly since I was about 13. My memories of summer vacation are all of canning. My mother and her sister would bundle all of us kids into the cars and we’d go out to the berry fields and pick berries all day long. The next day it was all hands on deck for canning. Every one over the age of about ten was drafted for the duration. The younger ones were responsible for bringing the empty jars in from the pantry and washing them. They also got the job of picking the tops off the strawberries and mashing them.
As the two oldest, my cousin and I generally got the job of sterilizing the jars. We didn’t have a dishwasher back then, so we had to set them upside down in an oblong, metal cake pan full of water on top of the stove. By the time I was in high school, I was in charge of cooking the jam and putting it in the bottles, while Mom supervised the troops.
Mostly, we canned jam of every variety of berry found in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The rest of the summer’s program varied, depending of what Mom could find for a good price. We canned green beans almost every summer because there was a field just down the street from us. Some summers we were able to get cherries, which we mostly pitted and bottled whole. I remember Mom making cherry jam one summer, that was luscious. And apricots, usually bottled peeled and halved, and of course into apricot-pineapple jam. with walnuts. yum. my favorite non-berry jam.
Tomatoes were another big canning day. Usually we would can them whole, but I remember experimenting with ketchup and tomato juice one summer. I didn’t like the way either of them turned out, so never tried again.
We had a fig bush in the back of our lot that Mom loved, but she could never get any of the rest of us to eat the fruit. One summer she got the idea that she was going to make fig jam and we could make our own fig newtons. I love fig newtons, but that jam and the resulting cookies were some of the most revolting things I’ve ever tasted.
Anyway, I moved out here to Utah about twelve years ago and haven’t canned anything since. Partly, it was because produce is so expensive out here, that I couldn’t stand to pay the price for the fruit. But I think the biggest reason was simply that we were now living in a tiny apartment and I felt like I didn’t have enough room.
For some reason this past summer, I got the bug. In spite of the prices and the space, I went to Costco and got all the berries and cherries I could afford and went home to make jam. I’m sure I spent over $100, because I had to purchase jars and lids as well, not to mention the pectin and the 50 lb. bag of sugar. My daughter and I worked like dogs prepping the berries and we managed to get one batch of raspberry jam and one batch of strawberry-cherry jam done before we pooped out. The problem was we still had a mountain of berries to deal with.
This is when I learned a great lesson I hadn’t considered before. Just because you have a mountain of fruit to deal with, it does not necessarily mean you have to deal with it now. We bagged all that fruit up in gallon bags, a batch’s worth to each bag and threw them in the freezer.
Just last weekend, I used some of those berries to make a batch of Strawberry Vanilla jam to give away as Christmas gifts for my coworkers and a few neighbors. It was hot, sweaty work; my hair was absolutely dripping when I finished. But it was also very rewarding when I was finished to see that row of sparkling, lovely jam, and it really didn’t take that long to do. Next summer, I’m planning to work in small batches, even if it means freezing the berries at first and just doing a batch or two on the weekends. Much easier than an all-day marathon, especially when you don’t have an army of helpers.
Below is the recipe I used for the Strawberry-Vanilla jam. I found it at the blog Love and Olive Oil. She got it from the book Food in Jars, which I have decided I must purchase. This was the best jam I’ve ever tasted. I did tweak this a little bit. The original recipe does not use pectin. I’ve tried making jam that way and it always turn out syrup instead of jam. I prefer using pectin. I also changed the amounts to fit the recipe in the pectin box.
Strawberry Vanilla Jam
5 3/4 cups chopped strawberries
2 Vanilla beans
8 cups sugar
1 box powdered pectin
1/4 cup lemon juice
Measure berries into large pot. Split the vanilla beans with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds out. Add them to the berries. Then add the empty bean pods. Stir. Cover and allow to sit for at least two hours and up to 72. When ready to make jam, add lemon juice and pectin. Stir until pectin is dissolved and cook over medium-high heat until berries boil. Add sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until berries return to a full, rolling boil. Continue to cook and stir for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Remove the vanilla bean pods and discard. sim the foam from the jam. This jam makes a lot of skimmings. We always skim this into a bowl so we can have it on toast over the next few days. That way you don’t dig into the jam right away. After skimming, ladle the jam into jars and seal. Water bath for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from the bath. Tighten the rings and set in a warm, draft-free place to cool. I like to set them on a folded towel. This collects drips from the water bath and insulates the jars from the countertop as well.