Reaping nature’s bounty
Sept. 5, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

It seems that wherever one goes these days, one hears stories about people who are busy canning, freezing, pickling, or otherwise preserving produce from their gardens.

Facebook is peppered with photos of their exploits.

Whenever I hear one of these stories or see a photo, it takes me back to my mother’s kitchen.

Ma grew up in a rural part of northern Minnesota in an era when people grew and gathered a lot of their own food, not as a hobby, but as a way to get by. She carried on this tradition throughout her life.

Ma came across as a sort of Mother Earth figure, and like many others who share this enthusiasm for home-grown food, she took advantage of whatever was available during each passing season.

One of her favorites was berry picking. Every summer, she disappeared into the woods in her quest for the perfect patch.

I’m not sure if she could smell on the wind when the berries were at the peak of ripeness, whether it was instinct, or whether she had spies in the field.

However she knew, she would find a way to get out there with some of her cronies.

She would start out in the morning. Wearing a scarf for protection from the sun and clad from head to toe in the battle garb of the Finnish homemaker, she would embark on her mission, along with her fellow berry-pickers.

They would spend entire days hiking through the underbrush, singing to keep the bears away while they collected wild blueberries.

In the evening, they would return, flushed with success and exhausted, bearing their buckets full of the precious blueish-purple treasure.

Then, Ma would spread dish towels on the kitchen table to avoid bruising the fragile fruit, and spend hours cleaning the berries. Her mother was a fanatic about the cleaning process, and she passed this discipline down to her daughters.

The berries would then find their way into a plethora of baked goods, from blueberry buckle to pies and muffins.

At other times there were raspberries and strawberries, each of which received equal attention. My grandmother had the biggest raspberry patch I have ever seen, and this contributed to each year’s bounty.

Ma never had enough space in her tiny yard to grow many vegetables, but she always seemed to be able to talk other people into letting her have space their gardens. She tended and harvested these plots with care.

The result was a steady stream of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and a host of other produce passing through her kitchen at harvest time.

Some she canned, froze, or pickled. Some was used at the peak of freshness. Some ended up in baked goods, and some of the berries were converted to jam.

Ma had her own rhubarb bed, and she must have had about 100 recipes for using these strange plants, including her own recipe for some fairly potent wine.

Her kitchen, especially at the peak of summer, always contained a diverse collection of home-grown produce, some of which I couldn’t identify. Windowsills were crowded with specimens in the final stages of ripening, and there were oddly-shaped vegetables wherever one looked.

I did not inherit my mother’s skills for gardening, foraging, or canning. While I found it fascinating, I never shared her enthusiasm. I certainly have never had the time or patience to carry on her tradition.

I had a vegetable garden for a few years, and that experience was enough to convince me I don’t want to do it anymore. And, I have observed the canning and preserving process enough to know that it involves far more work than I am willing to invest.

While I have no interest in starting a home cannery or harvesting my own vegetables, I am glad to see that so many people are still doing it. I find it especially promising to see young people involved in the process.

It seems that these are traditions worth preserving, so to speak.

We may not need to grow our own food today, but I am happy to see that the skills are being passed down to new generations.

There are many reasons why home gardens make sense, and why they are good for us and for the planet.

Perhaps not the least of these is that sitting down with one’s family and enjoying a meal composed of items that were picked the same day teaches us more about where our food comes from than any amount of education can do.

I understand, from listening to those who do enjoy canning their own produce, that opening a jar of something they produced themselves gives them a taste of summer at any time of the year.

Anything that can provide a touch of summer in the middle of a Minnesota winter can’t be all bad, despite the work involved.

To those who spend their summers fighting insects and weeds, flooding and drought, in order to produce some of their own food, and then can part of that goodness for later use, I salute you. You are preserving some important skills and traditions for all of us.

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