A joyful noise, wonderful women and men both, the smells of plum chutney and lemon juice and blueberry jam in the air, corn being shucked on the porch, people canning tomatillos in turkey roasters with a propane tank, burnt sugar cake and head cheese and blackberry pie, people laughing and chatting and making new friends. It was a fine frenzy, to be sure. The first friends arrived about 10:15 in the morning and our last friends left at 7:30 as the evening was descending. We were all filled with happy exhaustion.
We had a canning party this Saturday.
Remember when I told you about the Canvolution going on? And so many of you shared your own stories of preserving food? The excitement has been building, all across the country. Maybe some of you gathered in a friend’s kitchen, to put up peaches or pickle green beans or learn how to make jam. I hope so, because this was one of the most joyful afternoons I have ever spent.
And just think what it will be like to taste these tomatoes in January.
We have potlucks, often. We welcome our friends into our living room and backyard, laugh all day, and eat well.
But nothing compares to making food together. Some of us gathered around the table, peeling the skins from home-grown tomatillos. The conversation followed the same easy pace as those skins slipping off.
Within half an hour of the party starting, all four burners on the stove — as well as the two portable burners Jenise and Mike brought with them — were glowing bright blue with flame. Crushed blueberries bubbled with sugar. Squeezed and spent lemon rinds sat in the sink. The air began to smell of summer and wonder and something acrid too.
All the women talked and shared food secrets, demonstrating techniques with their hands in fast conversations, back and forth. (The men did too.)
Mostly, we used our hands. To talk, to point toward the work going on, to chop fruits and red onions and vanilla bean pods. Sheryl is crushing plums with her fingers here, softening, cajoling, making them ready for chutney.
In stations around the kitchen and the living room table and in the front garden, people made food ready with their hands.
Marisa, who writes Food in Jars, flew all the way from Philadelphia for this party. We were so honored. And so happy to meet her, all of us. She slid into the kitchen and enlightened many people on techniques and what to do with a giant Le Creuset pan full of simmering-hot blueberries and sugar. Look closely — do you see the lemon juice about to drop?
Besides blueberries and plums, tomatoes and tomatatillos, green beans and red onions, my dear friend Viv brought us figs. Fresh figs, plucked from trees on the island not five miles from where we gathered. We all oohed and aahed at them in the box when she walked in.
But looking at them flecked with lemon zest in this metal bowl? That brought out the food blogger papparazi — a circle of us honed in on the pink flesh with our cameras, trying to capture the beauty before us.
The house thronged with so many people that we didn’t have room for all the work we had to do. Laura brought this propane tank and giant pot, fired it up, and set to work on the tin table top outside. Within a few moments, this became the main gathering place, as people stood in the sunlight together, talking and topping green beans.
Kim, amazing woman, cut up plums, as she told stories and talked about her favorite books from childhood. We grew spirited, quickly, talking about the Boxcar Children and the Borrowers and Harriet the Spy.
This was my kind of party.
In that light, even the detritus of the vegetables looked beautiful.
Maybe it always does.
And then Laura canned her tomatillos, on the porch, with the leaves that needed sweeping, all her jars awaiting that swirling green.
In the kitchen, people rinsed and cleaned, setting everything aside for the next batch of canning.
(We had a lot of dishes at the end of the day, but they were mostly done for us. We would have happily scrubbed and loaded the dishwasher and emptied it, only to begin again, for days, if we had been required to. But people were lovely and left us an organized kitchen, on top of it all.)
Of course, no party would be complete without food to eat while gathered. It’s one thing to put up food for the winter, to make blueberry jam that will taste of August when we open it in February.
It all tasted better with zucchini noodles with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes, however.
We had quite the spread on our table, and in various places of the kitchen (any spot that didn’t have a burner, really). All of it fresh and vibrant, from farmers’ markets or small businesses.
And all of it gluten-free.
(If you have been recently diagnosed, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself, just look at this photo sometimes. All this can be yours, plus more.)
Plus, there was pie. Blackberry pie from the berries Little Bean and I gathered with our friend Anna and her son, Jamie. Little Bean sit on the path and demanded more and more blackberries. After eating only a couple of them, she looked up at me and said, “Yum!” That stopped my hand from reaching for the next berry for awhile.
That night, I made a pie, with my first lattice crust. I was surprised when any of it was left for the party.
It didn’t last long.
And gluten-free burnt sugar cake, made by a talented ten-year-old girl.
Our friend Jon brought sweet corn, a little later in the day. A few of us sat on the porch, talking about salmon and different methods of composting and corn shucking contests at the state fair. Those husks were tough, but we made quick work of them.
I made Jon sit there for a minute until I could take this picture.
And even though we had been canning all day, and the kitchen was littered with dishes to put away (and sliced apples still to be made into applesauce), Danny started cutting the kernels of corn from the cob.
He and Jon stood in the kitchen, talking about flavors and what to make with roasted peppers and coriander seeds from our garden. Neither one of them is much for drawing attention to themselves, however. They just set to work.
By the end of the day, empty flats stained with raspberries and green half-pint boxes sat on our front porch, so we could take them to the recycling center today. All that fresh fruit, ripe, made into something memorable the day it was purchased, instead of sitting in the refrigerator, wilting.
This sight makes me happy.
As does this one — just some of the jars of preserves people left for us at the end of the day. Fig jam. Plum chutney. Blueberry jam. Blueberry chutney. Corn relish. (There were also smashed tomatillos, homemade salsa, and bread and butter pickles.)
We will remember this joyful day deep into the long winter, and beyond.
And in the end, it was all about this. Jars, lids. Some canning salt. Fresh fruit. A pie or two.
Homey, comfortable. An activity as old as our great grandmothers and before them. We were a group of people — many of us new to each other — drawn into those rooms by our love of food and the desire to preserve it. We all went home with jars of jam. We left each other with new friendships, a raft of information about pectins and canning techniques, and the memory of a sunlit-dappled day of laughter and magic connections.
If you haven’t attended a canning party yet, may I recommend you throw one? (See Canning Across America for advice and content.) You won’t regret it.
You will be fed.