There are certain stabilizers in our lives that become absolutely essential to our feeling of order and homeostasis. For some, it is finding the morning paper on the front porch by 7am every day. For others, it is that hot cup of organically grown Cafe Britt coffee about mid-morning. And for still others, it is watching the Yankees play on tv during the summer. One of mine is having a single-malt scotch and a cigar in the evening, something I have discussed many times. It is during that hour or so that I contemplate the day's activities and life's memories--of children and grandchildren, of gardens and plantings growing around my property, of former students who left an impression. I am counting on having those memories until senescence and lack of eyesight completely take over and all I can do is pet the dog or the woodchuck, or whatever that furry thing is that is lying at my feet.
But there is one other stable element in my life-homemade strawberry jam. Most years, my wife and I visit a local farm where you pick your own strawberries. We bring them home, clean them up a bit, and my wife makes jam. That's right. Women make the jam, men mow the lawn. This division of labor has worked pretty well for centuries, so far be it from me to change it. But this year, my wife couldn't pick berries because she had some eye surgery the day before and was instructed not to bend over. So, I went to the berry patch alone, wearing my white head band to keep the sweat from rolling into my eyes and sporting an Aussie hat. Bending over those raised beds of berries is tough on a "mature" body like mine, so I found that actually lying down in the narrow row next to the bed worked best, and then inching forward as I depleted the ripe fruit that was close at hand. No one else in the field was using this technique, possibly because it looked like I was a Navy Seal crawling up the beach to surprise the enemy in Mogadishu. I didn't care. It was more comfortable than bending over, and this color-blind naturalist needs to be close to his work to find red berries easily. I picked 20 pounds and went home.
When I got home, it became clear that my wife was busy preparing for guests who were arriving the next day, and the chore of making jam would pretty much fall on the now ex-Navy Seal. Amazing how some men can lay aside their M-16 and grenade launcher after a successful mission in the berry patch to don an apron and to manipulate a canning jar in the kitchen. But on this day, that is what I did.
As my wife barked instructions, I snapped to attention. Clean fruit, cut it up, and mash until you have 5 cups. Put in pan on stove, add a pat of butter, and one box of Sure-Jell. Bring to a boil. Then, add 7 cups of sugar. Bring to a rolling boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Skim off solids on top of liquid. In the meantime, I had a very large pot on the stove containing boiling water and the jars, lids, and rings. Steam everywhere. Lots of heat in that part of the kitchen. This is why old farmhouses used to have a summer kitchen to do this kind of work. Remove the jars, fill with cooked jam, wipe off the rim of jar with a hot, wet paper towel, place lid on top, and screw on a ring. Then place all the filled jars back into the water bath to boil for a few minutes. Two fingers and 1 thumb now burned. Remove from heat, set on table, and enjoy the sound of those lids snapping down into place as the vacuum inside the jar takes hold. As one batch is finished, begin the assembly line for the next load of fruit. Two more fingers burned. Keep going. Don't stop or slow down, or you will find something else to do. It is hot, sweaty work, but someone has to do it. It is essential work, because we are talkin homemade strawberry jam--nectar of the Gods, sweet memories, winter morning comfort.
I made 20 pints of jam, so this should last until next June. But my wife has a tendency to give our jam away as gifts. And our grandchildren are always asking for "Grandma's jam". But not this year. Because I labored over the brew, I now hold the keys to this year's supply. I love my grandkids, but all that sugar is probably not good for them. And little kids need to learn that life is not always fair. And maybe they are allergic to red things. That you don't always get what you want, when you want it. And that "Grandma's jam" is sometimes "Grandpa's jam". And Grandpas can be stingy.
So, toast with strawberry jam in the morning, and a single-malt scotch and a cigar in the evening. Throw in a couple of vitamin pills, and I suppose this is a nearly complete diet leading to order and homeostasis.