Monday, May 31, 2004

Strawberry Preserves, Home Movies And Personal Injury

One of my favorite thrift stores is closing--this is the second time this year that this has happened, and they are not in any way related to each other. As of June 1st the store is gone for good. It annoys me because THIS one had remained relatively inexpensive and still yielded the occasional Really Cool Goodie Thing. The only saving grace is that this week, their last, they had everything at 80% off. One of the things I scored was an assortment of large canning jars for mere pennies each. Canning jars means, of course...

...that we started off on Saturday with a trip to the local strawberry field. N. always enjoys going there and begins shrieking loudly, "Strawberry field! Strawberry field!" while we are still a block away from it. This makes us giggle and at the same time plead with her for the state of our near-shattered eardrums.

"The Before Version"

The field is nicely kept with a lovely double row of mixed wildflowers on either side of the narrow concrete walkway, flowers that are nearly as tall as I am. Clouds of honeybees wander from flower to flower, intent on the coreopsis, poppies, batchelors buttons and nigella. J. is allergic to bee stings and it makes ME so nervous as he wanders lazily along the path that I have to force myself not to grab him by the collar and seat of the pants and frog-march him quick-time past the flowers. Just beyond the flowers is a small patch of assorted beans, squash and tomato plants, all in various stages of bearing. N. is fascinated by seeing produce on the hoof, as it were.

The prices are a bit stiff but since it's the only game in town, there ya go. They have it down to a science, it's just enough to make a face at but not enough to walk away from. Then a quick stop at the market for Certo pectin, a 5 pound box of superfine sugar and two boxes of new jar lids and bands...well, maybe not QUICK since the store manager, miserable human being that he is, has decided to rearrange the store again. We collar a worker and are told that the canning supplies have been moved from the baking aisle to the hardware aisle.

Home again to the strains of the child begging for a strawberry (No, they need to be washed first--we'll be home in just a minute--I KNOW they smell good, just hold on!). Then it's time to round up the oversized kettles and huge wooden spoons, the neato special rubber coated jar-lifter tongs that make life so much easier and that special nifty flat spoon that skims away any foam that forms. When canning it is important to get everything ready ahead of time, because once you start there is no stopping.

The jars, lids and bands are washed in hot, soapy water and then left to boil their way to sterility in the big black and white spatterware enamel kettle. The berries are washed and piled into a large 1940's era yellow and white Pyrex bowl. N. has been begging to help, so she and I retire to the living room with the sparkling berries where we sit on the floor with them. I remove the stem from one and show her how to hold it in one hand, give it a good squeeze and drop it into the oversized 8 cup Pyrex measuring cup. We work surprisingly well as a team, her little 4 year old self balancing the delight of squishing the berries, with the icky mess it leaves on her hands afterwards. Trying to teach math, cooking and family traditions I go over the basics with her: we need 4 cups of crushed berries, 7 cups of sugar and one pouch of pectin to get 8 cups of preserves. While we work I tell her stories from my childhood of harvesting and canning fruit. The living room survives with no fatal strawberry stains and the kid is sent off to wash up.

Much as N. wants to, this is the part where she is NOT allowed to help, or even be near. The berries and the sugar go into the large stainless steel pot, along with a tiny bit of butter to reduce any foaming. The Baker's Sugar, really just a superfine grind, is neat since it doesn't have the sandy, gritty texture that regular sugar has. Really nice for baking.

After the berries do their bit and boil, in goes the pectin. Another minute of boiling and then it's off to the races. This batch has foamed a bit so it's skimmed, then it's ladeled into the jars within 1/2 an inch or so of the top. Check the jar threads for any residue and then fish a lid out of the pot where they seem to swim away with jerky little shrimp-like movements, slip it into place and then screw on a band. I use a kitchen towel to hold the jar and lid in place while I crank the band on tight. I never does to forget that you've just filled that jar with boiling fruit and grab it bare-handed. The the jar is transferred to the far counter and placed upside down, where it will remain for 5 minutes for the heat to work it's magic on softening the seal of the lid. Same with the rest of the jars. A small bit of leftover jelly from the pot is scraped out of the pot into a little Pyrex dish as a treat for N, and the canning implements are left to soak with hot water. After 5 minutes the jars are turned upright and left to cool.

I take N. her treat of the jelly sample and she is very excited to be tasting the end result of the morning's adventure that she helped with. The sample is also a test to make sure that the preserves will set correctly--not to stiff, not too watery. This batch seems to be fine and I sit to relax a while and wait for the musical "Tink!" of the jars as they seal themselves. It's a sound that always takes me right back to my childhood in Norco, where every summer was a festival of canning peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines, quince, assorted vegetables and bread-and-butter zucchinni pickles. The zucchinni yield at our Norco home was ALWAYS, without fail, insane. And my father was determined that nothing would go to waste, so when he bought a packet of seeds, they ALL got planted, thank you--which led to ridiculous piles of zucchini.  We canned and froze as much as we could. I never thought to ask him why he planted so many damned zucchinni plants in the first place.

While the jars cool in the kitchen I sort through some old video tapes that need work. I pop one in that I made for myself and my far-flung family members back in 1993. It's a collection of events I filmed that year, and includes footage of my brother's daughter E. as a baby. Also on this tape is a collection of family photos that I gathered from everyone, videotaped and set to music. The tape has deteriorated some and is in shockingly bad condition. J. and I talk of moving up to DVD format with this stuff and I'm seriously thinking of redoing the photos as I still have the master 8mm tape and the music cassette to work with. Time will tell.

Just we finish watching the video, for some reason known only to preschoolers N. suddenly leaps up and runs through the hallway, slips and fetches up with a truly sickening thud against the doorjamb with her face. She doesn't cry but stands up and walks quickly and directly back to me. My heart is in my throat but I try to keep the panic out of my voice as I get her to come over and let me see what she's done. She points to her upper lip which is already beginning to swell and bleed. OK, she's punched an upper tooth through her lip, not too bad, my inner voice says. I look inside her mouth and swear inwardly at the ring of blood around one of her front teeth--my years as a dental assistant leap to the fore with the cheerful diagnosis of a tooth broken off at the gumline or somewhere up inside the root. As I know from personal experience it's a painful event, especially on the Saturday night of a long weekend within days of a full moon. Any trip to the ER is guaranteed to take so long as to require a picnic basket and a change of clothes. I perform lots of dental exam techniques trying to produce the dreaded tooth wiggle or tell-tale yelp from the child, thankfully to no avail. I do find another cut on her lower lip as well though, and she is entertaining herself by listening to the funny way she talks through rapidly swelling lips. She gets a dose of children's ibuprofen and a popsicle to suck on, both of which do their trick. Seems that this time she was lucky and her lips saved her teeth--time will tell since tooth trauma like this can take days, weeks, months or even years to develop into problems down the road. *sigh*

After such an adventurous day it's time to get ready for bed, during which N. again runs through the house to the strains of both J. and I yelling for her not to.

Another near-perfect-slice day of good times and bad.

Actually, all things considered, today I think the scales have dipped in my favor a bit.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Circle Of Life...For Today, Anyway

My back patio is a disgrace--covered in dust and chicken poop it will have to be cleaned very soon. I mentally add it to the list.

Life...and I mean everyday, run-of-the-mill life...is such a fleeting, tiny slice of adventure.

My daughter home sick with a fever and cold symptoms and the accompanying grumpy 'tude, a visit from a very nice city official regarding the dirt on and the weeds under my '69 Plymouth--she said she felt stupid bugging people about it but it was a new thing she had to do. I promised to clean things up and everyone was happy. Later I listened to the guy on the next block rev his Top Fuel dragster at heart-stopping decibel levels for two solid hours while he worked on it, and wondered where the city's priorities were currently being housed. I had a few unladylike ideas. One of my sisters calls this kind of typical City thing a "Cranial-Rectal Inversion".

After that I went out to the back yard a few times to hang out some laundry. Each time I appeared the entire flock of chickens would come running up joyfully, hopefully...but no goodies. Did you know that chickens can look dissapointed? Then the siren call of Patio Cleaning was heard, so I took daughter out armed with sidewalk chalk and plastic dinosaurs plus the boombox and an ELO CD for me. She was no problem but the chickens and the tortoise kept getting entangled in my feet or would go spelunking in the Mysteries of the Open Garage and then would have to be rescued and/or hauled out. The tortoise felt a deep inner need to carefully....slowwwwlllyyy...investigate every tool I was using. She also came back later to play in the hose water when I hosed off the patio,resulting in my shoes getting soaked.

The patio needs revamping, right now it is an ugly and uninviting holding pen for things like the trash cans and the barbeque. I just have to figure out how to use what I have to improve it, and step one was cleaning. On to step two!

After cajoling Miss Grump into ingesting a tuna fish sandwich I accidentally stomp a HARD plastic Disney 'Stitch' toy which cheerfully tries to imbed itself in my bare foot. As I yowl with pain I try not to use any words I'd rather not have a parent-teacher meeting about later on. Where are my shoes? Out back on the porch drying, of course...

After this I load the kid into the car, preparing to descend on the cable company office and fling money at them. Bless my stars, just as I get into the car my husband arrives home and volunteers to go drop it off, the darling. He also mentions that he has a sore back and neck from tossing several hundred pounds of machinery on his back and running it up some stairs. *sigh*

Take confused 4 year old back into the house and spend the next 20 minutes explaining to her what just happened. Four year olds must have Union rules which state that each occurence, question or statement must be repeated 20 times. After that I give up.

Tonight I skip the 5 o'clock news in favor or sitting in the back yard savoring the cleanness of it, blowing bubbles for the kid and playing with the chickens.

One of whom has pooped, right in the middle of my nice, clean patio.