My wife has made discreet inquiries about getting me some help with my problem. I’m pretty sure there’s no 12 step meeting for people who make jam. I really can’t imagine “Hi, I’m Joe, and I have a problem with canning fruit jam” being greeted with anything but “Will you share your recipes?” Nope, no applause, no discretion, just an invitation to share your skills on Pinterest. I checked the Hazelden website, not even footnoted.
I’m joking about it being a serious addiction. People with addictions who are in recovery hold my highest esteem. There are, however, some serious parallels with my canning jam.
Let’s start with the obvious: it costs a bundle. That little gem in the picture above is an item I coveted since I first saw it – about 5 seconds before it went into my cart at Mill’s Fleet Farm. It’s a cherry pitting machine. You pull the stems off, load the feed tray and whack the black knob. It pushes a sharpened rod through the cherry and expels the pit into a small container below the feed tray. Saves a lot of manual labor, cussing, and cuts with a knife as you manually pit cherries. You grab a bag of pickling salt here (just in case I want to do something with beets) and an extra six cases of jars. Why more jars? You never know when something good will be on sale that needs to go into the pot and get canned.
How does it all start? In my case rhubarb was the gateway fruit. I’ve always admired the stuff, liked the jam, never happy with what I could buy (when you could even find it in the store.) My friend Carol was freebasing the stuff on a weekly basis. She called it baking. Yeah, sure. Put a bit of granola and brown sugar in and it’s rhubarb crisp. Nothing more than baked product. But it led me to ask if she could can some into jam.
Two weeks later we were hiding out in her mother’s retirement home, slaving like a couple of meth cooks over a hot stove. Nobody would suspect we were cooking a batch in there unless we set off the smoke detector. We let the nursing staff know we’d be using the stove. We didn’t tell them why. They found out in the end: we bought them off with a couple of jars. Stirring the pot, adding pectin, and hoping for just the right froth to appear. Once we had froth, we had product.
Like everyone else who turns out a good batch, we shared with friends. Pretty soon coworkers were asking for it by name. That’s when it turned ugly. We’d missed the deadline for the Minnesota State Fair. We vowed to make it in time next year. And the planning began in earnest.
So far this year I’ve canned three times. The first one was like unto a cornucopia of delights. Rhubarb mango, rhubarb orange, rhubarb raspberry, and rhubarb strawberry. We just kept pumping out jam until the table was full and no more fruit was within reach.
The mango was special. It made people a little crazy. We’d even doped a batch with spice to see what heat would do to the mix. The answer was trouble: we made a plan to do another big batch in two weeks (once the heat had gone down.)
That batch was spicy all right. But not spicy enough for me. No, I wanted more heat, more flavor. So I made a batch that is code named “Norwegian.” If you live here you get the joke – it’s hot – very hot. It’s got an “N” on the label and it doesn’t stand for Nasrani.
Carol and I agreed that I’d stash the goods in my basement. I’m up to using a second rack now, the first couldn’t take the weight. God help me if the feds find out what’s down on those shelves.
That’s when I asked Carol if I could go solo. I knew I could do it if I was careful. She agreed. I was an experienced cook in my own right. So I got 24 pounds of cherries, pitted them and let them have it with a very sharp knife. They soaked all night in citric acid (preferred by mugs like me) and then I started them on the road to product by putting them in the fridge.
The next morning, while the batch warmed on the counter, I had breakfast with friends. I let it slip what I was doing that day. My friend (let’s call her Patsy Keech for her own protection) wanted in on the deal. She’d always wanted to make jam, and she knew it would be safe with me: I don’t talk. (Except in silly blog stories.) So we agreed to meet a few hours later: she’d drive her own car and park down the block.
I cleaned jars, set water boiling, and heated the batch for the final run of the season. No sugar this time. Just honey. It was another experiment I’d soon regret.
Hours later we had used up all the pectin, filled the first load of jars, and refilled the boiling water pots. That’s when it got crazy: we went nuclear. I wanted a cherry jam that would leave a mark on your palate and make you crave even more. We started with cayenne. Then cinnamon. Then more cayenne. We let it bubble until it looked just right. It tasted good – burned a bit, even. So we canned it and rushed it to the basement. You could hear the “tink, tink, tink” of the jars sealing as we pulled them from the hot water.
Before bed I checked the load. They’d set up perfectly. Now they were ready for labels and distribution.
Today I delivered the first batch in a white plastic bag that said it had greeting cards in it. Two hot, two tart, no pictures of Santa anywhere.
But I’m done for the year. The wife said I’d get caught. I still have a few cases of jars. I know my customers will return the “empties” and hope for more next year. We’ll see what the future brings. I don’t know if I can kick this thing or not. But I’m not sure I’m going to try very hard.
That’s how I roll.