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Gleaners come over to make jam

(article, Harriet Fasenfest)

For years now, I have taught classes on food preservation. How I learned is another story, but my methodology is based on the traditional practices and research of the Oregon agricultural extension service. And while the “how” I teach is by the book (unless it’s safe to wander off course), the “why” I teach or preserve is not, at least for my generation.

There is no time saved doing your own food preservation. And absolutely no time saved if you are growing or gleaning the food yourself. But the elements of time have become so pegged to a business climate on steroids that you cannot really peg it to that.  

[%image jam float=left width=350 caption="Making kiwi jam."]The same goes with the cost of food preservation. The amount you spend to put up your own food will only make sense (if frugality is your thing) if you get it free or straight from the farm at low cost when the season is at its peak. Growing it will only make sense if you have a full-frontal commitment to the years it will take to bring your soil to good tilth. Backyard food gardening can be a fool’s game if you are not in it for the long haul. From my experience, it will take at least three to five years (and even longer) to bring your entire ecosystem into some sort of healthy balance wherein the aphids don’t rule. 

Which is not to say you should not do it. I’m in love with the whole process and my passion grows yearly, if not always my yield. I mention this only to make a point. Food preservation works in a symbiotic flow of a culture, which is generally not the one most of us live in. 

But that has not stopped me, or the “kids” who showed up in my backyard for Portland’s City Riparian Project.

Having met with Hindi, one of the organizers, a few days beforehand, I sort of knew what I was in for. At first, my natural inclination for order could not groove on the randomness of their process. For the kids, spontaneity is, if not everything, certainly a valued component of life. But these kids are part of a greater movement, one that is seeking joy and solutions to the challenges of a global economy. They are more about action and celebration and how the two can merge than about fretting the small stuff — which, by the way, happens to be my particular strength. 

So when I asked Hindi what the kids would be bringing to my backyard, she could not really tell me. Almost immediately I could feel my neck muscles tighten.

Being a middle-aged hippie wanna-be can be challenging for a number of reasons. First, I hate dirty dishes in the sink, or dirty anything for that matter. Which is not to say hippies or their third-wave incarnations (hippies, like feminists, are forever) are dirty, but their credo (and I can only guess here) is most likely not about spotlessness or order. Not that they eschew the concept, but it can be easily forfeited for the sake of the greater moment. I, and many of my generation, appreciate choreographed moments. We like the image of serendipity. 

Take shabby chic, for example. Now there’s a design concept that is great to look at but impossible to actually live in. We love the road less traveled as long as we can navigate it on MapQuest. 

Still, I want what they've got: a spirit of adventure, hope, and the willingness to go off course, even make some messes if you have to. I get it; I just don’t want it to be in my kitchen. The challenge, for me, is letting go of my limitations — and letting in the mystery. So just because Hindi could not tell me what we would be experimenting with or how much there would be did not stop me. I just put on my “whatever” hat (which is hanging right next to my “it’s all good” hat) and forged ahead.

Setting up the backyard canning kitchen (I just had new floors put down in the kitchen, for God’s sake) I waited for the mystery to unfold. Originally I thought it would take the form of figs — green, somewhat underripe figs — because that’s what Hindi thought it might be following a quick perusal of the abandoned trees in the neighborhood. Gleaning from the neighborhood was part of the idea for the Riparian Project, and I got the motive force. Here in Portland, we have so many abandoned fruit trees that it makes sense to start with them. 

I’m all for it, and early in my latter-day life transformation I could be seen reaching for the low and high-hanging neglected fruit on trees throughout the city. It would drive my mother crazy when she visited me from Florida. She thought I was nuts, given all the fruit available at the stores and farmers' markets, but then she wasn’t as into creating new models for alternative economic systems as I was. From her perspective, Reagan had done the right thing to follow Margaret Thatcher's plan of privatizing government-supported services. Deregulation was her mantra, but then she was a Milton Friedman groupie (I think it was the nose), and if apples from Chile were cheaper, so be it. 

But I digress.

"Fine," I thought, during my conversation with Hindi, "underripe green figs." I could handle that. I planned on making a honey syrup (the kids don’t like sugar — I get that) with star anise and cooking the figs briefly in it before canning. I assumed the figs would hold their shape better and even, perhaps, stand up to the sweetness of the honey by being a little underripe. And I had a gallon of honey in my pantry that I knew might well take years for me to eat. So great: a plan. 

[%image "reference-image" float=left width=400 caption="Hardy kiwis."]But then it changed.

A little before the “scheduled” arrival time, I got a call to say they were picking hardy kiwis and could we make a jam out of them? I imagined the hairy variety with a less-than-firm pulp, which did not speak to me of jam. “No, these are small and smooth-skinned,” I was told over the phone. Hmmmm. “Well, I’ll research it, and I’m sure we can come up with something,” I said. 

For anyone who knows me, that was no small victory. To say I am a control freak in the kitchen is to say Bush is sorta stupid (sorry, this is my blog). But then you don’t design and run restaurants and staff them and create the menu and systems of operation because you are short on detail. So, with hardy kiwis in mind I ran to the Internet to see what I could find.

Nothing, really.

Jam needs three things to set: sugar, acid, and pectin. Marge, my partner in Preserve (you would love her) and I have a website that has information on all three, as well as the specifics of jam-making. It helps to know how much of those three elements your fruit has, at least for the way I make jam. 

I hate boxed pectin. I mean hate._ This strong dislike is founded on principles I can share another time, but let's say I like to approach jam-making from a more holistic point of view. You just gotta know your fruit to make jam without boxed pectin, and I knew nothing about hardy kiwis. So I came up with a plan of action. I printed out some instructions on making homemade pectin (which you can find on our website) and tweaked the concept behind making small-batch jam (also on our website), and waited for the bounty. 

In a matter of moments, I was confronted with about seven pounds of the world’s smallest grapes still attached in clusters to their stems, about three pounds of hardy kiwis, a few bags of ripe and not-so ripe figs, some filberts, and a few green tomatoes.  

Hmmm. Where to start in the two hours we had allocated?

In the end, we made grape juice from the grapes and hardy kiwi jam. I had to tweak the jam recipe the next morning since it did not turn out all that well the first time around (too much lemon juice), but then I wasn’t expecting miracles. It did set up in a reasonable amount of time, which was my first concern. As for the figs and green tomatoes and filberts, I sent the kids home with them, since by the time I got to clean up it was well past my pre-bed time (the hour when your eyes start to cross) and suggested that next year we start at six in the morning — the time when good hippies get up. 

But in all ways I had fun, if only in the way it pushed my natural limitations and invited the spirit of something that is real and true and important in Portland and other places across the world.  

And I’m speaking about the spirit of hope that is made manifest in actions like those of the Riparian Project and other gatherings throughout the country. They say, and it is true, that the children will lead. If only they would do their dishes though.

reference-image, l

jam, l