The jars are emptying out here. Despite the fact that it was an unbelievably awful gardening year, somehow the canning jars filled up all the same, to the point that we actually ran out of pint and smaller jars. Now, boxes and cabinets are filling up with emptied jars, put away until I begin putting things up again.
I still dig out the canning kettle once in a while in the winter – some apples going slightly soft inspire some applesauce now and again, but the season of preservation has not yet begun, and the time of emptying is upon us. Every day, our stocks decline.
Every year there is a favorite jam in my household – one that came out particularly well. One year it was the cranberry-vanilla, another raspberry-black currant. Two years ago it a cinnamon-greenage plum jam that was superb and spicy. This year it was the fall raspberry jam – the strawberries were good but a little watery (we had 26 inches of rain in June, so that’s not too surprising), the cherry was nice, the peach-apricot-almond very good, but the raspberry – well, that was something special. Accordingly, it has been extremely difficult to get anyone to eat the other kinds of jam while any raspberry lingered. But now we are on an enforced diet of the other kinds, which is really not so terrible (don’t tell anyone but I’ve got two jars put aside for hamantaschen at purim, and one for my husband who discovered the pleasures of raspberry jam on his occasional luxuriant toats with nutella.)
Now we put the strawberry rhubarb on our toast – and it is a perfectly nice jam, superior, i think, to any I could buy. But we can still remember the taste of the raspberry, which was precisely the flavor of late summer, those days with the warm sun on your back and the cool breeze on your front that we spent picking berries. It was the taste of a moment, of greeness just turning red, of ripeness and the lush smell of harvest. How could we not want all that back?
It was a dreadful tomato year, but we still have two dozen quarts of sauce – no salsa though. Not a great pickle year either, but there are still pickles on the shelves. I’ve got two more jars of tomatillo sauce for enchiladas, three or four of pickled hot peppers. But everything is in decline – I debate whether to ration out the best stuff, or just to push through it and endure. We do some of both – bringing out that last hidden jar of salsa on a particularly wintery and grey day, to be devoured with homemade tortilla chips.
The root cellar is emptying out too. The wet meant a poor potato harvest, and we will be out of potatoes by mid-March, I suspect, which has not happened in years. The last few sweet potatoes are set aside for starting slips, the cabbages are eaten, the carrots are fading and while we’ve still got acorn squash galore, the butternuts and few hubbards are long past.
There is plenty of corn left for grinding, and some to feed the animals, and amaranth as well. The barn is full of hay, but the best hay is running lower than I like – most of the hay was put up late last year due to the terrible weather. We have garlic yet, and onions aplenty, but I’m out of sage and the basil plant I overwintered has a hangdog, ratty look that bodes ill for its future. There’s a sense of moving past prime.
Now is the time for eating things that weren’t everyone’s first favorites. The Hokkaido squash, the winter luxury pumpkins, the Kuri and Hopi Orange, the Hubbard and the butternut are our favorites. Now comes the relentless flow of acorn squash – because that’s what’s left. Baked and stuffed, baked and spiced, mashed, souped, pied…
The carrots are softening and more and more go to the rabbits and the goats, and the kid eat parsnips in their soup instead. There are still good apples, but there are mealy ones too – and these I make into sauce or baked apples. I could give them to the animals, of course, or compost them – but we grew this food, and good cooks can transform second choices into first ones.
Once upon a time, February, March and April could be hungry times. Once upon a time, without stores to turn to, late winter and early spring were the times of running out for real – I am down to second choices, but once, people were down far deeper than that. I still have abundant stores, but it seems a point of honor to a memory of the past not to waste them – to eat the food that is still good, to try and remember that it is hunger that is tiresome, never dinner just because you’ve enjoyed it before.
I could buy other food – and in fact, when my local farmstand reopens in March, from their more perfect stocks of potatoes, I will replenish part of my supply. We buy greens and other supplements from the farmer’s market. We’re not suffering from bad food – but we limit all of these outside additions. A slight sense of fatigue at a local diet in February is a normal thing, and not a bad one, I think. It is part of the process – I’m grateful that I can get locally grown arugula for a crisp salad in winter, but I don’t want to eat that everyday, delicious as it is – I want to remember what February is, the time of eating what you’ve put up Pushing me to make new and better things from parsnips is not a tragedy – it isn’t even a major inconvenience. And the truth is, that eating locally means living through February and March when it has lost some of its luster.
In November, we long for the taste of squash, my kids look forward to cabbage pie and jam on bread. By now, my children want to know how long before rhubarb and strawberries and asparagus – and the answer is “a while yet.” My local supermarket has these things aplenty, these signs of an artificial spring from far away. And the part of me that is also sick of cabbage and brussels sprouts, of beets and acorn squash could buy the supermarket strawberries and asparagus just this once – but I know also that they would disappoint.
This, in the end, is why I do it – because of the intensity of the experience. The first gathered greens in spring aren’t half as good if you’ve been buying salad mix from California all winter long. Asparagus cut from the bed in my front garden is so dramatically more delicious than anything I can get – so sweet we eat it raw – that we’d rather wait. Nothing I can eat in this time and season will taste as good as the new produce of a new time. For that, I can only wait, and if it isn’t better, well, there’s honor in eating the acorn squash before its spoils.
I am fortunate, my house is full of food. There is popcorn that we grew all summer, and warm cocoa after an afternoon skating with friends. There is jam, even if not the raspberry, and stuffed squash, which is pretty delicious, even if we’ve been eating it for three months. There is cabbage and there are beets, shredded raw with slivered apples and mixed with dressing and made into tart-crisp salad with the last of the overwintered parsley – no, it isn’t the first spring salad, with pale new radishes and tiny lettuce thinnings against spinach and bitter-sweet dandeliions, but it will do.
We can’t have it all – I’d rather have cream of parsnip soup, creamy with goat’s milk and the rich sweetness of parsnips roasted with garlic and thyme now, deep, complex, even if familiar, than I would have shallow and empty asparagus, fat and from far away, with only a pale hint of what I know to be the possibility of asparagus. I’d rather, of course, be able to go out and cut asparagus right now, today. I’d rather not wait. But now is the time of waiting.
The jars empty and accumulate, the woodpile gets smaller and we watch winter wax and wane, a cup of tea or cocoa in our hands. We get impatient – a friend joked to me that she was ready to go outside and melt the ground with her hairdryer, and I knew just what she meant. The boys talk longingly of what they’ll do when spring finally comes, of baseball and tree climbing and seining crawfish in the creek. They still are enjoying skates and sleds, but they are more and more turning to the time when the chicks will hatch, the kids will be born and they can run in the grass again. We talk of strawberry shortcake for Daddy’s birthday and asparagus pie for just any day, and sunshine on your skin and swimming lessons.
And that’s ok – dreaming of spring, dreaming of the next thing is part of heightening our pleasure. So we wait, and we watch the birds come back and the days get longer. And on the windowsills, we watch, nibbling our squash, the first tiny leaves unfurl in the lettuce seedlings that someday, crisp and cool, will fill our plates and overflow them.