After nursing my husband post-op for six stressful and exhausting months, Gary wanted to reward my faithfulness and devotion with a present, a token of his affection. I was touched. Love and gratitude can be expressed in so many ways.
I checked, but there was no new car in the driveway. No tiny box with genuine bling inside. No tickets to Paris, or even Wolf Trap. I pondered how he might express his gratitude., but didn’t have to ponder long. As they say at the Academy Awards, “The envelope please.”
He handed me an envelope. Hummm. Perhaps it was a gift certificate for a day spa or a shopping spree?
Bingo. Well, almost bingo. It was a gift certificate, but not for a spa, or anything else I might have ever imagined. This particular certificate entitled me to three private lessons with Sylvie of Laughing Duck Gardens. Lessons? What kind of lessons? I unfolded the paper and read, “Three lessons in how to preserve food safely.”
“Oh.” Pause. Regain composure. Look deeply into his eyes. He was sending me to learn how to put food in jars without giving him botulism. “I thought you’d enjoy getting out of the house!” He smiled broadly and puffed up with pride at his inspired gift. I smiled, knowing that his heart was in the right place.
As a formerly urban woman, my sole canning experience had been in France, where, after a morning of berry picking I watched my host family spend the rest of the day stirring the boiling berries in a massive copper kettle with a paddle that, under other circumstances, could serve as a cricket bat or sculling oar. The cauldron hung over an outdoor wood fire, which, along with the heat of the day, brought the ambient temperature near the vat up to about 120 degrees, necessitating short rotations of manpower to avoid heat stroke. The end product was a year’s supply of “confiture,” which is French for “cooked -down fruit that you put in jars.”
Since arriving in Virginia, I have had locally sourced jams, jellies and preserves, but had never seen a need or shown an interest for canning.
On the appointed day, I arrived at a charming Rappahannock County farmette. and presented myself to Sylvie Rowand. From Sylvie’s accent, I could tell she was French. She told me that she was born on the French island of Reunion, off the coast of Madagascar. “Oh,” I tell her, “I have relatives there and in the Loire River valley as well!” The French Connection broke the ice and gave us a moment to bond before jumping into our first lesson.
Having put on our aprons, she hands me a sheet from the Extension Office outlining safe canning procedures, then says with a stern look, “I’m obligated to give these to you.” I scan them briefly, noting the “dos” and “don’ts,” including a section on food poisoning resulting from sloppy work. I shove them into my backpack for later.
Sylvie familiarizes me with the necessary kitchen equipment for the task of canning, and we are off and running . . . or more appropriately, sitting at the kitchen table, peeling the four bushels of peaches before us while I learn about the varieties and colors of peaches and the difference between cling and freestone.
After a quick break for lunch we sterilize jars, cook peaches one batch at a time, fill jars with hot peaches, tap the peaches down into the jars, poke out the air, pour in the syrup, put on the lids and rings, then boil the jars, eight at a time, to seal them. Our two-person assembly line hummed along for several hours. It was obvious to me that I was learning from a master! It made me feel like I was linked to the past, linked to all those women who have taught each other to preserve food since the dawn of time and the invention of dried mastodon!
Sad to say, technology has butted in once again and now you can view the process sitting in front of a computer screen watching videos like “Water-bath Canning for Dummies” (it exists). But in the olden days, five or six years ago, you still needed to see a human do it and supervise your efforts.
My three lessons were staggered through a wonderful summer spent learning, peeling, cooking and talking about life. It had proven, unexpectedly, to be the best gift. I came away with jars and jars of peaches and apples, and a special friendship. I returned the next year and the next, splitting bushels with Sylvie as well as the labor, proudly bearing home to Gary my share of sealed Mason jars. Finally I decided that I could safely do this on my own at home, with Gary’s assistance.
I’ve been “putting-up” with my husband ever since.
We really look forward to this time of year. We thank God for the harvest and our health and the strength to preserve the bounty of our own garden and that provided by surrounding orchards.
And then we break out the canning supplies, and start peeling.
Rose and her husband Gary live in Syria — the peaceful one, in Madison County — where their weekend fishing cabin is now their full-time address. When she is not writing, Rose is a “free-range” rabbi, serving a six-county area.