Sunshine on Apricots

The smell of a sun-warmed apricot transports me backwards in time, reliving a day spent picking fruit fresh from the tree with my great-grandmother as she regaled me with stories of living in a sod hut on the Colorado-Kansas border. Orphaned at an early age, she traveled west with her relatives, rode in a covered wagon, and spent her days riding her pony across the prairie.  Great-Grandma was an interesting blend of her Mennonite heritage, despite her mother marrying out of the church, indoctrinated by the rigid feminine sphere of her religious background while possessing the heart of a rebel.

She taught me to blanch the apricots quickly in boiling water, transferring them into an ice-bath to shock the skins off, gently pitting them and then packing the golden orbs into her vintage canning jars, carefully wiping the rim after topping with simple syrup. The science of canning accompanied our activities. Great-Grandma explained how only fruits could be cold-packed and prepared in a waterbath canner, as they were high-acid and were not susceptible to botulism like low-acid vegetables. She fired my imagination with talk of recipes using the canned fruit, of rustic tarts reflecting the migration of her ancestors through the Alsace-Lorraine region of France prior to migrating to the American frontier, while at the same time chiding those who were too lazy to preserve, wasting hard earned cash at the store when nature provided so amply.  To lack thrifty-ness rated as high a sin in her mind as being lazy.  My mind replays her imprecation, “Idle hands become the devil’s play toy,” warning me against the hazards of being shiftless.

Pits and peals were piled into a stock pot, simmered, and then strained for their juice, which became a marvelous golden jelly that glowed in the sunlight and delighted the taste buds. Recycled jars, small jars such as those containing olives, and small condiments were filled with the jelly and topped with paraffin wax, eliminating the need to waste money on canning seals.  The remaining skins and pits, depleted of nutritional value, were then tossed into her compost pile, later to be spread as a soil amendment upon her flower beds, the one vanity she possessed.

I recently purchased a case of apricots, lacking the opportunity to pick fresh.  The aroma of the fruit brought memories rushing back, and in my mind I was wearing one of Great-Grandma’s aprons, holding the corner with my left hand as I picked with my right, while bees buzzed gently and the sun warmed my face. Although she has been gone these past fifteen years, having given up the fight at the ripe old age of one-hundred and four, she stands beside me in my modern kitchen, coaching me as if I were still a child.

People often look askance at me when I mention canning, the braver ones questioning if I am “one of those doomsday preppers.”  Others find it quaint, a lost art, and mention how their mothers and grandmothers canned, while shaking their heads at the thought of all the hard work it entails. My frequent response is that I prefer to know what is in the food I feed my family. While being true, this keeps me from having to explain through the lump in my throat that canning brings me to the awareness that I am a compilation of all the women who came before me, and each jar on my shelf speaks to me, not only of their love and pride, but of who I am—having inherited a bit of Great-Grandma’s rebel nature.