Preserving with kids: Dreamy sweet slow slave labor

In the mornings, in the evenings, in the hot, hot afternoons, I have been standing barefoot and apron-beclad in my kitchen, canning. This act, in this time, is especially fraught; while on one hand it is viewed as an act so radical it’s at the center of a few back-to-the-land-style movements — Radical Homemaking, the Canvolution — some mothers describe it as “slaving over a hot stove” or, should one have the opportunity to complain about it via an essay on Salon, describe metaphorically as “shoveling rocks” (but not, mind you, for Satan).

peaches and tomatoes ready for peeling

Slave labor is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder (in the flexing back muscles of the sensor?). It is in the ache in one’s own bare heels; in the sweat of one’s own forearms as they lift hot jars out of simmering water. And any task may seem Sisyphean should you compare yourself to, say, Betty Draper.

My children do not bring me martinis. My children bring me blueberries, peaches, stalks of garlic fresh-dug from the July earth of my front yard. A friend arrives to drop off 50 pounds of nectarines and apricots; my eight-year-old, stronger than thou, carries the nectarines in and we immediately set into them, they are lunch, snack, dinner.

monroe with the blueberries

And preserves. It is fashionable to find canning either precious pastime of the idle, wealthy hipster or that eye-popping work of the indentured houseservant. Too much, anyway, for the mom whose schedule includes carpooling, Starbucks dates and playground visits during which she can finally check Facebook.

I find it neither servitude nor divertissement. I find preserving fruit plucked from trees, free, or purchased in large, luscious quantities at the height of the season (and cheaply) a joy, an art, a languid dance through my ancestral pastoral dreams. I love everything about it, even the parts my mother herself (raised on a dairy farm at the tail end of the Depression) professes to hate. Pitting cherries. Slipping stone fruits into vats of boiling water, then off with their skins! Slurping the flesh left around the pit after I’ve slid the wedges off paring knife into pint jar, peach juice dripping everywhere, elbows to soul. Spooning out samples of apricot jam, spiced with ginger, flecked with vanilla beans, licking the bowl clean.

peach jam on bread

Last Saturday, it was 9:07 a.m. and already 84 degrees when Lea knocked on my door, toting baby and black-eyed pea salad, pickled beets and a case of half-pint jars. They were the first of several mothers, three dads, two babies and a passel of girl-children to come through my front door that day. We walked up the hill to pick plums from a laden-down tree; we washed and peeled and ladled and wiped and lowered jars into steamy bubbling water. We stood at the sink and sat on the floor, on chairs, nursing babies and eating rosemary shortbread cookies in the shape of hearts and creating new combinations we’d never imagined before. Plum rhubarb cardamom chutney; strawberry vanilla lemon marmalade. It was the hottest day in weeks; even Vanae, nine months pregnant, did not mention the heat. When Lea walked out the front door after 7 that night, there were jars still processing in their hot water bath and the warmth I felt was my heart, still wrung with glow.

While there have been happier times in my life, they have not been many. As our children ran in circles around us, filling arms with canning rings to battle like robots, building fairy houses under the willow tree, eating bread with hummus and blueberries straight from the pint and conducting trade in baskets of shortbread, we slowly, slowly, talked and smiled and almost-cried and ate and preserved the briefest spark of summer’s sweet flush. We canned 27 and three-quarters pints that day and made plans to meet again. My kitchen counter, my dining room table, my entryway are laden with jars, orange and purple and red and yellow; my lungs overflow with shouts of joy.

blueberry jam in jars

“This is so easy,” I said, around 5 o’clock as Lea and Vanae and Angela and I surveyed a July day’s work. “Shhh,” said Lea, and we all laughed, and thought to ourselves, tell everyone! Start here.

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Images: Sarah Gilbert
12 Responses to “Preserving with kids: Dreamy sweet slow slave labor”
  1. Anna

    I’m in love with this post, it’s amazingly refreshing and your writing is fantastically whimsical. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Janet

    Simply beautiful.

  3. What a joy to read and even better to sense. Having just come from a vacation where almost every meal came fresh from the garden, it seems that canning as you are is like putting by a little jar of summer. To anticipate. Enjoy. Harvest all over again when the winds of winter blow. my grandmother used to do this, as did my aunts. We did not, we lived in the city. But it’s the kind of activity that warms many times over. In the sharing and the eating. Thank you Seth for sending me here.

  4. Adrienne

    I’m a 29 year old mother to an almost 2 year old, and I work a full-time office job. This is the first summer that I am canning…and have loved every minute of it. My mom never canned. My grandma did (but never when I was present, and only pickles). It’s difficult for me to describe the fulfilled feeling I get after canning a batch (of jam, pickles, fruit in syrup). I made that! I didn’t buy it…I MADE it! And I know where the ingredients came from! I was shocked to learn how easy it is to put up food, and am happy to teach anyone how to do it. You wrote a great article…and have described in great details, the feelings I get from canning.

  5. “Elbows to soul.”

    If I could eat your words, I would.

    Beautifully written, Sarah.

  6. So beautiful, and aptly said, and inspiring. I’ve been canning alone this week, and it is joyful work, but it sounds better still in good company.

  7. Meg

    I love this post and only because I share a similar love for preserving but unfortunately my daughter is too young to help out and my husband too stubborn. In fact, after 5 hours of making all types of jam, he called me “the crazy jam lady.” Some nerve. I mean, just because I had it in my hair and all over my mouth from sampling does not put me in the category of being crazy.

  8. Angela

    What a beautiful and uplifting post. Thank you.

  9. Laura

    Absolutely beautiful … words, pictures, inspiration. I want to preserve now!

  10. Jill H

    Thank you so much for the inspiring pick-me-up…I really needed this today.

  11. This has been our first year gardening. While it is work, it’s rewarding work, enjoyable. It’s not at all the same type of work as say, schlepping the kids to the grocery store. There’s a difference in doing rewarding work, and just work. I’m looking forward to branching out into canning next year.

  12. Janet

    Your story — and photos — was beautiful. I’ve never canned, so it was nice for me to hear your take on it. However, I can only imagine how much work 27-3/4 pints took since your words made it sound so easy. ;-)

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