The fresh taste of summer is stored in every jar of home canned fruit. I have vague memories of mom canning blackberries and plum jam, many years before fresh fruit could be shipped mid-winter from Mexico, or Argentina on an overnight jet. Sometimes, deep into the winter months, when very little fresh fruit was available, mom would pull out a surprise jar of canned peaches, or blackberry jam. There was celebration during those rare moments. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how special those times really were.
In 1974, I moved from the San Francisco area and relocated to a remote, forested farm, forty miles north of Nevada City; the nearest civilized town. In an experiment of communal rural living, I spent a year with a half dozen other hardy young souls, without electricity, flush toilets, or running water. We attempted to grow our own food, deriving warmth from the cordwood we had cut and stacked during the autumn.
In remote areas, when neighbors were few and the snow was deep, the tendency to gather for even small celebrations left room for, potluck dinners, birthday gatherings, groundhog day celebrations, storytelling and musical get-togethers. Any excuse would do.
A couple with their three young children rented the house at the end of our road late that first autumn. The woman who had lived there for the preceding fifty years had gotten too old to take care of herself, and had been moved into town with her daughter.
A new family that arrived in the neighborhood was certainly an event. Consistent with any excuse to gather, a few weeks after they moved in, we were invited to a potluck at their home to welcome them into our little valley.
When dinner was over, we realized that no one had thought to bring the most important part of any meal; desert.
Our new neighbors looked at one another, then said, “Come into the basement, we have a surprise.”
We followed them down a steep flight of dusty wooden stairs into a dimly lit, dank and cobweb infested, rock-walled basement. We stood in awe. Surrounding the twenty by forty-foot basement, four shelves high, each shelf was packed tight with quart mason jars stuffed with endless variations of canned fruit and vegetables. There were peaches, apricots, pears, apple butter, berries of all kinds and endless rows of canned cherries. In the vegetable section, there stood rows of pickles, okra, peas, string beans, tomatoes and baby carrots. Almost every vegetable that could be canned, sat in a neat, well-organized cornucopia of canning frenzy. A quick scan of the room, and I guessed that there stood five hundred separate glass mason jars, each with a little label on the lid telling when the food was preserved and what was in it.
Just the number of canned goods was impressive, but the real surprise wasn’t until our new neighbors randomly picked a quart of cherries, wiped off the dust and read a hand written label with the date of 1951.
We went upstairs, the contents were poured into a bowl and we cautiously each tried one. Though the color of the fruit had faded to a pale pink, the taste of the cherries was as if someone had gone out to a tree and picked the fruit off the limbs moments before our gathering.
For Twenty-two years the fruit sat inside of that jar and its taste was more exquisite than most summer cherries. We ate the entire quart.
I visited my new friends often during that long isolated winter. I always tried to show up just before dinner, by chance that they might go back into the basement and bring up another surprise jar that had been unknowingly preserved for the next generation.
Yes, I have eaten home preserves since, but none tasting so good as those surprise cherries on that chilly late autumn evening.