STEVE BOUSER: Yeah, I Was the One Wearing the Apron
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When my daughter Kate, away at college, learned what I had done with a recent weekend, she pronounced it "random." I'm not sure, but I think that bit of teenspeak translates roughly as "off-the-wall."
You may agree. At the very least, those who know me may consider it out of character. You see, I spent a day and a half in the kitchen (I wore an apron and everything), putting up 58 eight-ounce jars of what I'm labeling "Bouser's Peach Jam What Am."
Why 58 jars of peach preserves? Because I ran out of peaches before I got to my target of 60.
Some readers will recall my "peach epiphany" column of a year ago, in which I confessed that I had managed to make it through my life to that point "without ever having discovered the incomparable sensory bliss and Zenlike oneness with God's universe to be found in one simple act: acquiring a freshly picked peach, peeling it, cutting it into luscious bite-size slices, and putting those slices in your mouth."
I have been making up for lost time ever since. Late last season, like a squirrel industriously preparing for winter, I froze enough peach slices to take up about half our chest-type freezer and enjoyed them during the intervening months.
In fact, I regulated my consumption so cautiously for fear of running out that I had quite a few left when fresh ones became available again this past season. They're still in there, held in reserve for emergencies. I've been supplementing them with a new frozen crop this week -- since the season, alas, is about gone.
Meanwhile, a friend in whose home my wife and I were staying broadened my horizons another notch a while back by giving us a jar of his own homemade peach jam. It's the kind of thing that might normally gather dust in our cabinet. But before we took it home, he insisted that we try some right there in his kitchen, spooning it liberally and messily onto some fresh-from-the-oven, lightly buttered biscuits.
Now, I'm not saying that that sweet, clear, lumpy, golden-red, fruity concoction was the most luscious thing I ever put in my mouth. But before I finished my second helping, it had soared to rank right up there with other all-time favorite taste sensations like chilis rejenos from La Poblanita, Irish whisky from Bushmill, cinnamon rolls from the (unfortunately recently closed) Jazzy Java Cafe, and chocolate malts from the Ice Cream Parlor.
Back home a few mornings later, I had hardly scraped the last of the peach preserves from the bottom of the gift jar before I had determined to break free of the dependency cycle by learning to put up a few batches of the stuff myself -- partly to give as gifts, partly to horde (mine, all mine!). My wife's offer to help extended only so far as cleaning up the kitchen afterward.
Watts Auman gave me a deal on the kinds of peaches required -- so ripe and juicy as to be just on the lee side of rotten. I phoned ahead, and by the time I arrived at his orchard near West End, he had already set aside a bushel or so. "These are just what you need," he said, handing them over. "We call them culls."
Besides the Ball jars and lids, the only special equipment you need is a canner -- a large enameled pot with a lid and wire rack. I got mine from the helpful folks at Burney's Hardware in Aberdeen for 20 bucks. The recipe includes but four ingredients: a lot of mushed-up peach fruit, a little lemon juice, an envelope of liquid pectin and a ton of sugar.
The job turned out to be simple -- laborious, but simple. Mix up a batch, bring it to a boil, ladle it into eight or 10 jars (kept steamy-hot in a separate pot), screw the lids on quick, and plunge them into the boiling canner to sterilize for 10 minutes. Then take them out, set them aside and begin another batch.
After you get in the rhythm, there's something deeply rewarding about mastering this ingenious, time-honored method that clever country people were using long before the days of supermarkets and home freezers to preserve some of the bounty of summer for the harsh months of winter. I'm glad I did it. If you're nice, I'll give you a jar at Christmas.
Perhaps the most satisfying moment comes after each batch of jars has been set aside on a towel to cool and begin the mysterious process of "setting up." Within a minute or two, as they stand there at attention in their smart little ranks and files, you begin hearing a chorus of sharp pops, each one telling you that another domed lid has snapped shut, forming a perfect seal.
What sweet music!
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com
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