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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Can It!

The crab apple tree in front of our building is loaded with lovely, ripe fruits this summer. In the past, it has had a few little apples here and there, but this year the branches are bending over gracefully with the weight of all of the beautiful fruit. Frankly, the tree had been making me feel guilty every time I walked by. The fruit was just sitting there on the branches, waiting to go to waste. So after getting the go-ahead from the lovely ladies in the leasing office, I decided to pick some of them. I gathered up as many as my hands could hold, avoiding the ones that had already been sampled by the birds, and brought them inside.

I placed the apples, and a few assorted leaves that came off the tree with them, in a lovely brown antique bowl on our dining table. They look so homey and bright and lovely - the reds and greens nestled in the earthy brown bowl on the oak table. Quite charming, actually. As I picked them, and as I set them in the bowl for safekeeping, I thought about long-ago jars of crab apple jelly. Crab apples, if you are not familiar with them, are not exactly a fruit that you just eat out of hand. They are rather tart, and need some sugar and some magical cooking to turn them into something else, like the clear, rosy delight that is so wonderful on a piece of toast. Or even better, on two pieces of toast!

And there they sit, my lovely crab apples, in their brown bowl on the oak dining table. And they look at me reproachfully every time I walk by the dining table or go in or out of the kitchen. I feel guilt for not having turned them into anything at all, much less the lovely jelly I remember from my youth. Heck, I never even turned them into a photographic still life called "Crab Apples With Leaves and Twigs in a Brown Bowl on an Oaken Table in August." When I walk by, I can feel Betty Crocker and Ansel Adams shaking their heads in sad disgust at my inaction.

I really have to give myself a break on this, though. No, I haven't technically made the fruit into anything. Frankly, I don't have the equipment or the counter space to make jellies and jams, much less the energy. But I have made the fruit into something that can't be measured. I've made it into moments of joy. Picking the little fruits reminded me of my next door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, who had a lovely crab apple tree in the furthest corner of their back yard. Mrs. Phillips would make lovely jars of clear, rosy-colored jelly and give some away to lucky neighbors, including Gram and me.

And Gram had several trees that always bore lots of delicious, sweet plums that she made into a heavenly plum jam. There were always enough plums for us to eat right off of the tree, as well as make into jam, and to allow any neighbors to pick as many they wished, as long as they asked first. Gram was very adamant about that. She loved to share, but nothing made her angry as quickly as someone just helping themselves without asking first. It was not just ill-mannered, it was tantamount to stealing.

As Gram got older, she got less enthused about making jams and jellies and such. It takes a lot of work, after all. There are all of the jars and lids to be washed and sterilized. Then all of the preparation and cooking of the fruits, and stirring of sugars and pectins and thickening jams, and filling jars, and special water baths and sealing processes and whatnot. Heck, just thinking and writing about it is exhausting! The last time I remember Gram making jam, she told me she didn't think she was going to do it any more. She had to be in her seventies at this point, and she said that it was just too much for her to do. "I don't think I want to do this again next year. The jam and jelly always tastes good, and it's good to have it, but it's so much work. And when it's finished, there's a mess from Hell to breakfast that still needs to be cleaned up." So Gram retired from the canning business. 

Although I miss those lovely jams and jellies, the plum jam most of all, I've never had a great inclination to make them myself. Like Gram said, when you have a lot of fruit, or vegetables, or whatever, it takes an awful lot of work to can it. And I fully agree - when you're done with all of the canning, there's still that awful mess to clean up. So I'm willing to spend a few dollars from time to time to buy some lovely home made jellies or jams. And I'm also delighted any time someone is so kind as to share with me the fruits of their labors, because I know how much effort goes into it. I'm just not willing or excited to clean up a mess that goes from Hell to breakfast!