The Absurd and Amazing Adventures of Cafe Girl: Preservation

June 29, 2011


I made the foray into canning.

It all started with a trip to the Salinas Farmers' Market last week. I found  a vendor that sold home made jams of all kinds - from conventional flavors such as strawberry, apricot, peach and blueberry, to more unique flavors such as pineapple jalepeno. There was something so pretty about those mason jars filled with bright red and orange preserves and tied with ribbon. The jars fascinated my mother, who loves fruit jams. Somewhere in my head, a fantasy began to develop - what if I learnt how to make jam, and made some for my mother one day? I scoured the Internet for recipes. A trip to Trader Joes' garnered ripened, if not particularly sweet, peaches.

Turns out, jam is not difficult to make. It's basically a combination of fruit, sweetener, and pectin heated to a boil then allowed to cool and gel. Pectin, the jelling agent that gives jam its gel-like consistency, is activated by  sugars in the sweetener. The trick, of course, is in the proportions. How much fruit, versus how much sweetener versus how much pectin is the difference between spreadable deliciousness and runny fruity mess.

What is less simple is the canning process. Canning requires mason jars and a coordination of various hot liquids. Mason jars are sanitized in steaming, but not boiling, water while the jam cooks. Once ready, hot jam is poured into those jars, which are sealed with lids and secured with bands. The sealed jars are then boiled in a water bath for about 10 minutes. This boiling process kills bacteria and helps form a vacuum seal around the mason jars. Upon removal, the sealed jars are lifted out of the water bath and placed on a surface to cool for 24 to 48 hours. If done correctly, the lids "pop" and a vacuum seal is formed, preventing air from touching the surface of the jam. If not, jars are rushed to the fridge to prevent spoilage.

Jam, unprocessed, lasts about a month or so in the fridge. Jams that are processed in the canning water bath can last anywhere between one year, and some say, even longer. The problem, of course is if you don't get the canning process just right, you risk breeding bacteria and jam spoilage.

The online instructions on canning felt like warnings from a friendly, if somewhat dire aunt. The canning process is easy, you just have to following this ten step instruction list to the T or risk dying from a bad batch of jam, not tomorrow, or even the day after, but six months from now, when you open that jar of jam and an angry hand reaches out to grab your neck, because bacteria has not only bred in your jar, it has also developed a murderous personality while sitting on your shelf. All because you were careless. That one time.

Because I have a slightly obsessive personality anyway, I pondered longer and more deeply than I should have on whether I really wanted to make and can jam. I'd have to buy mason jars, a canning kit that included a funnel, a pair of tongs and a magnetic lifter to remove mason jars and lids out of hot water. I wondered if I had to shell out the money for a canning pot. What if I tried and I hated it - what would I do with all this equipment? What if I tried to can and did it wrong, and all the jam went bad? What if I boiled the jam for too long? Or too short a time? What if I couldn't get it "just right?"

As the jam bubbled, and a large pot of hot water simmered, I wondered about my compulsion to get things "just right." There are many reasons for this compulsion of mine. Some of this is cultural, some of this is due to family history, and some of this need is simply because it just hurts when things go wrong. It's disappointing. Sometimes, it's even humiliating. I always want to get it right because getting it wrong can be painful.

In many areas of my life - professional, social, even in my faith walk, I've come to the realization that mistakes are inevitable, that to expect and strive for "just right" is a fruitless endeavor. Mistakes are, and should be, part of the learning process, part of a life journey, part of growing into a mature, whole adult. I understand this  in every aspect except for my dating life.

In my dating life, I still somehow mistakenly believe that the reason I am single in my 30s, is because I didn't and continue not to get it "just right." I am not "just right" in my physical being - I am a tad too chubby for LA, I have bumps and rolls where others do not, I am not outside all the time, spending my spare time hiking, running, going to the gym. I am not "just right" in my faith - I don't spew the word Jesus in every other sentence, do not declare that I look to God for all my needs, all the time, do not loooove my church, do not pray unceasingly, do not even read the bible daily, do not know what exactly entails being a Proverbs 31 woman. But most of all, the thing that gives me most angst, most worry, most consternation, is that I do not know how to maneuver the dating world "just right." I do not know the rules, do not know if he is interested or if he's just not that into me, do not know what to say, do not know how to say it, or if, in fact I should say it at all.

Part of my problem, of course, is that I have absorbed dating advice from Christian and secular circles for far too long. Much like the online instructions for canning jam, dating advice, Christian and secular alike, sounds like a cheerful yet oddly dire aunt.

Christian circles will warn you not to "pursue," to "guard your heart," to "look to God to be your husband." The stories they tell paint a picture of a young woman looking heavenward (because that's where God is) with one hand outstretched in the ""stop" position, holding ungodly men at bay. And then one day, out of nowhere, when she least expects it "BAM!" along comes the perfect young man who has followed God and somehow found his way to her. The stories they tell about the other kind of young woman, the one who dared to look at a man, dared to ask him out, dared to complain about her singleness, well those women... actually, they don't say anything about those women. Instead, they quote men saying things to the woman like, "Well, if I am interested, I will be the one that lets you know." Which may sound polite on the surface, but is actually pretty humiliating and dismissive. The Christian dating message is this - be "just right" in your desire for a husband and the man who is "just right" will come along.

Secular circles, in the name of pointing out the differences between men and women, paint a picture of a man who is easily intimidated and turned off by basically anything you might, as a woman, conceive as being somewhat normal behavior. Talking for one thing, apparently frightens men off, as does having a full life - because it signals you have no room for them. And let's not forget responding too soon to any communication, or responding too late. Being too good at whatever you do, or being too stupid. Not asking for help, or asking for too much help. The quote that often confounds me is this, "I want to feel that I am needed, but also that she can be independent." I've heard this so many times and in so many different places from men unknown that I'm starting to wonder if this statement has become bastardized and completely misquoted, as in that game "Broken Telephone." The secular message for dating is this - be "just right" in how much you respond and who you are, or men will be frightened away.

Before you scream, "Bitter woman!" and log off, never to read this blog again, I want to point out that I don't actually believe dating advice from Christians and non are great, or accurate, or reflect what men and women are really like. If we really follow this advice "just right," it would make for incredibly insecure and skittish men, and incredibly passive and manipulative women. And we all know how that combination makes for an incredibly healthy relationship.

As I lifted out the jam filled mason jars from the hot water bath, I heard the quiet "pop" of each jar - the sign that the vacuum seal was in place. Clearly something worked. I let the jars cool on my dining room table over night and watched the jam slowly set. I ended up eating two of those jars, but I did save one of the jars in the pantry, to be opened six months from now. I guess we'll know then whether that jar of jam will delight me - or kill me.

As for dating, I'm not so sure it will be so clear cut. Sometimes, dating delights, or more accurately, amuses me. But these days, it's starting to feel like dating is slowly killing me. I haven't actually been on any dates, but I sure put a lot of effort into being open, being available, meeting new people, being myself - everything that I've been told will increase my chances of finding a husband. The results are meager and the effort is exhausting. What I do know from watching my peers is that there is no "just right" formula for ending up with a husband or wife. Jerks find wonderful, Godly women. Stupid women end up with PhD candidates. Fat chicks date. Ugly guys marry. No one is "just right" and people date and marry every day. So clearly "just right" is not the solution.

I know this. Now I just have to believe it.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I have lately wanted to try canning, but I am afraid. My mom used to can, but she never taught me--I don't think I expressed an interest. She made these delicious bread and butter pickles that stank up the house something awful when she cooked them, but they tasted like no other pickles I've had before or since. Sooooo good. Maybe someday I will get bold enough to make them.