STEVE BOUSER: Jam Session: To Everything Its Season
I spent all last Friday in my annual canning frenzy, ending up with 68 half-pint Ball jars of my trademark "Bouser's Peach Jam What Am," suitable for gifting.
I would have put up more -- maybe a hundred jars -- if so many of my peaches hadn't turned out to be wholly or partly rotten, obliging me to spend hours wielding my paring knife like a surgeon's scalpel, carving out all those moldy gray and wormy-looking parts while lovingly preserving the succulent golden ones.
I have no one but myself -- and an unexpected one-day delay -- to blame for all that trouble.
My personal peach consultant, West End orchardist extraordinaire Watts Auman, would have preferred to sell me a bushel of perfect young peaches with unblemished complexions and firm flesh. But I have this stubborn thing about choosing only soft, cast-off, discolored, retirement-age fruit that others would turn up their noses at. There's something almost biblical about it, as in: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."
I've learned the hard way in past years that peaches with any hint of crispness or excessive firmness to them result only in bitter, angry, hard-edged preserves. Peaches, like people, have more depth of character if they show signs of having suffered and taken a few hits. Give me the mellowed peach equivalent of what the French call "a woman of a certain age."
Actually, I go further than that. I always specify that my jam peaches must be just two or three degrees this side of moldering in the grave. So that's what I asked about when I called Watts last Wednesday afternoon. He replied rather dubiously that if I came out right then, he could give me a deal on a bushel of culled, over-the-hill Sweet Sues he had tentatively set aside an hour earlier for the scavenger guy who picks them up for processing into ice cream.
As soon as my wife and I arrived, Watts tried to steer me toward some other varieties in more presentable condition. But I insisted on seeing the not-so-presentable ones, and Watts reluctantly invited me behind the counter in his shed. And sure enough, there sat a couple of sagging boxes of peaches in as perfect a state of borderline decomposition as you could ask for, all full of bruises and squishy places and with just the right number of fruit flies and yellow jackets buzzing around them.
"I'll take 'em!" I said, reaching for my billfold.
"You sure?" Watts said. Then, as if going on the record in the spirit of full disclosure, he said: "OK. But you'll have to put them up tonight -- tomorrow morning at the latest. They'll go fast."
Don't worry, I said. The next day, Thursday, was my birthday. And my boss, David Woronoff, had, in a moment of magnanimity, recently decreed that all of us at The Pilot could start taking our birthdays off.
But a couple of things hit the fan at work later that afternoon, necessitating my presence in the office the next day, and I put off my holiday till Friday. "How much difference can another day make?" I asked on Wednesday night, carefully spacing the individual peaches out across an expanse of newspapers covering the entire surface of our dining-room table. "They'll be fine as long as they're not touching."
But they weren't fine by the time Friday morning arrived and I had gotten my assembly line set up in the kitchen and carried in my 30 pounds of sugar and set the canner to boiling. Watts was right. Maybe a quarter of my peaches had turned into furry little mounds of decaying matter and had to go directly out to the compost pile. In others, mere serious bruises had alarmingly advanced to near-fatal hematomas. As I carved away at them for hours, our sink took on the gore-soaked appearance of a busy battlefield operating room.
But in the end there was good news: The product run that emerged out of that mess is probably my best, most luscious Jam What Am to date. It hasn't finished setting up yet, but early sampling indicates that this is what the ambrosia of the gods would taste like if you spread it generously onto a hot, buttered biscuit. And there's something deeply satisfying about rescuing something otherwise bound for the garbage and putting it to such glorious use.
As I took the last of the eight batches out of the cooker and lined the jars up on a towel and heard their little dome lids start snapping shut as they cooled, I found other biblical lyrics running through my mind. They came from Ecclesiastes, as set to music by Pete Seeger and popularized by The Byrds: "To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time for every purpose under heaven."
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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