Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vegan MOFO: Day 2 - The Lost Art of Canning

Today is our last full day in Montana. We enjoyed a mellow morning. We took a quad ride around the ranch. It was quite something to be riding along with antelope running beside us.

Before we left I showed Fred the root cellar at the old homestead house. There were jars of preserved goodies from decades past. While eating them would be questionable, it made me wonder about the family who had canned them and the gardens they came from.

The old matriarch of the ranch passed away several years ago. In her later years, she seemed to be in the grips of dimentia. When she was a younger woman, she would travel about the ranch searching for ancient fossils and arrowheads left by ancient tribes. She spent years making mortar and rock pathways through her gardens. She was sure to have spent many hours lovingly tending her garden.

The area is chock full of choke cherries and huckleberries. Preserves are sold all over the state. None could compare to the dusty jars full of the sweet hand processed goodies in the cellar. The ranch has several apple trees that produce the most delicious sweet/sour apples you can imagine. The cellar treasures include apple juice from the trees harvested by the children and grandchildren of the old woman. In the fall, the ranch families would each gather their families and spend time together in their kitchens preparing and canning for the winter. In the heart of winter on the prarie, nothing tastes better than a jar of those home canned tomatoes used to make a warm soup. The flavors of summer combined with the warmth of soup to warm the ranchers bones in the winter.

This cellar brought back fond memories from my childhood. Our family had similar summer and fall rituals. I remember the smells of the tomatoes steaming in the canner. I remember the flavor of mom's spaghetti sauce. The mellow acid of the midwestern tomatoes rounding out the best spaghetti dinnner.

One of my favorite family rituals involved my grandparents' house. They were avid gardners and produced the most incredible gardens. It was so much fun to spend a few hours in the afternoon while they showed me the plants they lovingly nurtured, explaining what each one was and how it was planted. They had a root cellar that would be the envy of any of us kids who are now city dwellers.

Grandpa was a professor of botany, a magician, a vantrilliquist, a ham radio operator, and the one man in my childhood who made me feel like I was truly special. He was also very handy and loved to make things. He had lots of gadgets. Each year they would bring out the apple peeler. It was a contraption that was attached to the picnic table by a vise. That baby could peel apples at record speed. Each one of us got our turn peeling apples. Grandma would then take those fresh apples and simmer them down with cinnamon candies. This was the honest to goodness best stuff ever!! You never know if it was the flavor, or the deep bond with the earth and family that was so easy to forget throughout the rest of the year. Grandma and Grandpa would do the rest of the work while we kids played in the huge shaded yard. They have been gone for years now. But the memories of them and their magical garden live on in each one of their grandchildren.

I often long for those days of innocence and family roots. My sister and I moved across the country from the rest of the family. While I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's, I hope someday we can revive some of those old canning rituals that helped develop our bond with mother Earth and each other.

Fred and I are going to start a small garden this fall and try to figure out the tempermental Arizona soils. It's time to revive those old rituals with his grandson. They are worth carrying on.

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