Friday, June 28, 2013


Today marked our first adventure in making jam, and as I was thinking about what to write about tonight, it seemed an appropriate topic.

However, as I typed the word "jam" in the title, another meaning of jam hit me. A concert or show. And then the other meaning, traffic jam.

That got me curious about the actual definition of jam. According to Google, it is quite simply to "squeeze or pack (someone or something) tightly into a specified space."

So, for once, a word used in multiple contexts seems to have a logical, transcendent term.

The word "jam" as in concert or show took me to a video-conference I had this morning with the Hip-Hop Education Think Tank's "Def" committee. And the idea of transcendence in meanings seems to make sense in that context, as well. We are striving to squeeze or pack tightly the meaning of an entire consciousness and cultural way of life into about ten or fifteen definitions. We agreed in our video conference this morning that the terms needed to be able to be transparent and easily understood across all communities and groups of people who find value in hip-hop. In short, no one should have to go to a dictionary to understand what the terms are about.

Now, the making of jam. For us, it was strawberry rhubarb jam -- a freezer jam (which doesn't require pressure canning in a hot-water bath), as well as a standard jam. Afterwards, we used the leftover strawberries to create a strawberry rhubarb pie, and then realized that we still had enough rhubarb to make a rhubarb jam.

But it's not just strawberries and rhubarb. The tightly-packed thing that constitutes jam also requires some water, to soften and tenderize the rhubarb, a product called pectin (which essentially allows the cooked down fruit to congeal) and a fair amount of sweetener: three-quarters of a cup of honey in the case of the strawberry-rhubarb varieties, and a whopping five cups of sugar (for six cups of rhubarb) in the case of the rhubarb-only jam. In years past, that amount of sugar would have been enough to stop me in my tracks. Now, I realize that I probably will eat very little of this jam. Most of it will be appreciated by my sweets-loving husband.

I read Little Women as a youngster, and remember well Meg's ordeal of trying to get her jelly to gel. That late nineteenth century story and the mess in the kitchen that it provoked also deterred me for years from even beginning to believe I should ever try making such a thing. And, indeed, we did not make jelly, merely jam, which turned out to be a surprisingly easy process.

How does it work?

Well, like almost any cooking procedure that involves fresh produce, the biggest task is prepping the fruit. We used our super-whamodyne food processor to chop the rhubarb, but I sliced about six cups of strawberries singlehandedly. Since we ended up making three different kinds of jam and a pie, the slicing was relatively easy since I could do it in shifts.

The second biggest task is probably preparing the jars. If you're going to do it right (and there's a whole lore behind canning that gives you every reason to do it right), you need to sterilize the jars. That means gathering the jars, their metal rings, and their metal tops and boiling them all in a massive pot initially for about 10 minutes, and then letting sit in the pot of water to stay warm. My husband doesn't trust me with any kind of sterilization procedure so I left that thankless task to him.

For us, we faced a third task, which was converting our powdered pectin to liquid form for both of the strawberry-rhubarb jams we ended up making. Not having used pectin before and being indoctrinated by the lore of canning risks referred to earlier, we consulted recipes and canning tips carefully. One word of advice was to not substitute whatever type and amount of pectin the recipe called for with something else. One of our recipes called for liquid pectin and the other for powdered. We found the latter in three different varieties but not the former. Partly by accident, we ended up buying all three (like boxes of jello, pectin is cheap), figuring we could find a different strawberry rhubarb jam recipe, other than the one we had that called for liquid pectin.

We then discovered that you could turn powdered pectin into liquid through a fairly simple process of boiling the powder in a half-cup of water, then adding more water so that the substance came to one cup. We did this, and then realized that one of the three packages of powdered pectin that we purchased was an "instant" variety, useful for freezing but not necessarily for canning. That's why we ended up with one batch of freezer jam.

After these tasks are out of the way, however, the process flows fairly smoothly. You put the rhubarb in a pot with a little bit of water. You bring it to a boil, then simmer it down so it cooks itself tender. Then, in the case of the strawberry jam, you add the strawberries with two tablespoons of lemon juice, and then the 3/4 cup of honey. After the honey has dissolved, you bring the concoction to a boil and stir in the liquid pectin. Give it one minute of a hard boil, then turn off the heat. Start pulling jars out of the big pot in which they've been "sterilizing", dry them out with a clean towel, and ladle in the jam. Leave a quarter-inch at the top, press on a lid and seal with a metal ring. Put the jars back in the water, bring it back to a boil, and let them boil happily for about ten minutes. Remove them from the boiling water with tongs, and let them sit undisturbed for about 24 hours.

We probably spent three hours making 15 jars of jam, plus the pie (which, by the way, is sitting unbaked in the refrigerator overnight because neither of us could bear the idea of looking at either strawberries or rhubarb any more for the day). As mentioned earlier, I am not the world's biggest jam fan. But we began baking our own bread last winter, and in so doing, my husband began eating jam ravenously. We probably spend about $6 on a single jar and go through one jar every two weeks. Do the math and you see that the costs of jam can add up. For this project, we spent about $16 on strawberries (some of which were lunch snacks for me yesterday), $3 on sugar, $10 on pectin, and $24 on a half-gallon of honey. We have leftovers of everything, except the strawberries, and enough jam right at the start to last about six months. And an unbaked pie sitting in the refrigerator.

So, jam. Early summer squeezed into a preservable form to be enjoyed in the cold days of winter.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer at Squashville

A quick perusal of Facebook tonight showed friends on summer vacations. Photos of beaches, brunches, weddings, honeymoons, parties, and picnics were in abundance. Just looking at all of those lovely scenes of summer-dom made me start to wonder where my own summer was going.

A day in the office this afternoon yielded a different scenario. Colleagues were harried and stressed, working on projects that couldn't get finished during the regular academic year. Listening to them made me feel a bit guilty because I've been working at home and working out a lot.

So what does summer at Squashville translate to? My husband Jim has a quick and easy answer: digging, planting, and creating topsoil from yard waste and kitchen scraps.

For farmers -- even fledgling farmers like ourselves -- summer is not the best time for vacations because every day off is a day lost in pursuit of creating new food. Creating new food is like an artistic practice. It's lovely, warm and self-fulfilling -- and it needs constant work.

We began planting seeds in February, in seedling pots, old yogurt containers, and plastic cups. Snow blanketed the ground, and the wood-burning stove that provides most of the heat for our home did double-duty keeping both us and the hundreds of seedlings that soon began to sprout comfortably warm. The planting pace quickened in April and May as the snow finally melted and the ground thawed. Already we could see the first signs of a promising harvest when the field where we had sown some 400 cloves of garlic the previous November went from snowy white to fertile brown and then to a hazy green, indicating rows upon rows of garlic plants growing.

The weather turned erratic in May, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the low 30s well after the Farmer's Almanac and USDA hardiness zones suggested the last frost had occurred. This delayed our planting of what are known as the solanaceous crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squashes of all hues, shapes, and sizes. It also slowed the development of our Three Sisters garden, a three-crop planting scheme modeled after indigenous American practices of planting corn, beans, and squashes together.

Then, in June, the soil suddenly heated up. So did the fervor of work. In addition to needing to get the solanaceous crops in the ground, we were suddenly confronted with a burst of spring bounty: kale, collard greens, bok choy, Swiss chard, turnips, beets, peas, and rhubarb. Now, not only were we planting at a crazy pace, but we were harvesting to eat and considering when to pull out the freezer wrap gadget to start storing food for the winter.

And then there's the garlic scapes. These are swirly green shoots that form on the stalks of garlic plants. The scapes eventually sprout seeds that burst and scatter all over the earth, re-seeding the garlic in the process. It's a wonderful thought, with a couple of issues. The first issue is that it's advisable to rotate your crops on an annual basis to balance out the soil and to "trick" certain garden insects from finding their favorite crops. As a result, a bursting of seeds -- while beautiful to contemplate -- means a bed that might have been planned for potatoes in the following year will be overrun with weedy garlic. The second issue is that the scapes deplete energy from the plant, resulting in poorer quality bulbs of garlic. So you want to cut the scapes off. Fortunately, they're tender, fresh, and delicious so cutting off scapes means more pleasure for the palate.

Except when you have 400 of them.

A little bit of back story on the garlic. In the fall of 2011, we planted 50 cloves of garlic, and expected to get about two dozen bulbs. We ended up with about 50 bulbs, essentially a 100 percent success rate. Emboldened by our success and our love for garlic, we decided last summer that we would plant 250 cloves, figuring that we'd get about 200 bulbs, some of which we could donate to the food pantry, some of which we could give to friends and family members as gifts, some of which we could save as seed for the following year, and most of which we would consume. The only problem was that when we consulted with one of the farmers at the Saratoga Farmers Market as to how much "seed garlic" we should order, we couldn't quite nail down an exact amount because seed garlic is not sold by the clove but by the pound. After some head-scratching, the farmer recommended that we order about ten pounds, figuring that if each bulb of garlic contained five or six cloves, we would have about 25 cloves per pound. Her calculation turned out to be wildly off. We ended up with about 75 bulbs, each of which held anywhere from eight to a dozen cloves. We planted as much as we could, gave some to a friend, and ate the rest into early January.

Still, we were sure that we would lose at least 10 to 20 percent of our plants. At last count, we have lost maybe two plants. Not two percent, but two. That means we have a lot of garlic, and garlic scapes to boot.

Since the scapes are fragrant and delicious, I have been cutting them off periodically to use in cooking. But hundreds remain on the plants. Which means tomorrow is Operation Scape. I plan to rise early, enjoy a cup or three of coffee, have a good breakfast and then hit the fields with shears and basket in hand, and cut them all, hopefully before 10 a.m., when I'll need to head into the office for a conference call.

Our rooster crows at 4:55 a.m. My husband jumps out of bed to open the door to the coop and then comes back in to snooze until sunrise. The rooster refuses to stop crowing until he has some evidence that the humans of the household have actually awakened and begun their day. The cats going outside often seems to satisfy the rooster. The day for the humans begins at a leisurely pace and picks up steam as the heat rises. I balance my time between the office, my writing, and the fields; my husband spends most of the day in the fields. Dinner is usually after sunset, which is about 9 p.m. these days. We then have an hour or two of leisure time on the sofa before the eyelids droop to sleep. And, then, as the rooster crows, we start it all over again.

It is not the beach. But the sun shines. It is not a brunch, a picnic, or party. But the food is fresh, abundant, and wholesome. It is not a getaway trip. But overall it is a pretty good life.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

185 Days

Today is June 15, which means I have been off alcohol for 19 days in December, 120 days January-April, 31 days in May, and 15 days in May. That adds up to 185 days.

I note the fact that I quit drinking quite often in conversations with friends, acquaintances, family members, and colleagues. Even though I speak of the decision a bit casually, I find myself treading the topic with a little bit of apprehension. I suppose the uncertainty for me stems from a few pointed questions:

* Am I an alcoholic?

* Did I have a drinking problem?

* What would happen if I had a glass of wine?

I honestly do not wish to have a glass of wine, or any other libation, though I do think about wine, beer, and hard liquors like scotch, bourbon, rum, vodka, and gin almost daily. Sometimes I think that it would be enjoyable to have a drink, but then I think about the weirdness that would infuse me and the dryness, the headaches, the difficulty awakening that I would experience again and I thank God for every day that I do not have a drink.

Because, fact is, every morning feels fresh and new. It's rare now that I wake up groggy. And even though I still do seem to have a little bit of difficulty getting myself settled down to sleep, I rarely have trouble falling asleep once I make the decision that I am in bed.

This week during the AP reading, I have maintained my energy all the way through Day 6. I felt alert enough today to work an extra 75 minutes past the reading and probably would have made it to 90 minutes if I hadn't made plans to meet up with someone to talk about flipped classrooms and online learning.

I remember John, an alcoholic, whom I dated in Honolulu. I didn't know until I was fairly emotionally involved that his form of alcoholism was to drink until he passed out. He told me he would go months without having a drink, and then would have seven all at once. His drinking had cost him dearly: a divorce, two DUIs, and probably a lot of lost brain cells. He often drove when he drank, even though he would try not to.

But when he was sober, he said, the clarity was amazing.

Another individual, who had been hooked on drugs (I'm not sure what drugs), was in a sobriety program when I began working with him and his writing. A scowling teenager, he had produced a piece of writing on his personal dreams and aspirations that was original and inventive. He stayed sober through his junior year but lapsed at some time in his senior year before getting sober again. He described sobriety as the most incredible clarifying experience, a time when his creativity felt boundless and his potential seemed endless.

So, clarity, boundless creativity, endless potential.

I feel these things, too, as I wake up at 5 a.m. to read, as I go through a day of encounters with people of various personalities and personal challenges that they often bring to encounters and feel myself able to give them attention and compassion without getting unstrung myself. I feel the power as I read at a high speed, and feel confident that my reading is accurate. I feel the strength of boundless creativity as I run during lunch, and swim after the work day is done. I also notice the difference as I look in the mirror, and see my skin looking fresher, younger, less worn, less tired.

It's my goal to keep it going for at least eighteen more months.

After that, honestly, we'll see.

But what can I do now that I wasn't able to do this time last year?

* Run a 12-minute mile at a relaxed pace.

* Swim 1,000 to 2,000 yards without getting completely winded.

* Bicycle.

There's other non-physical benefits, too. I speak my mind without worrying that I will say something that I might regret later, meaning that I feel a full command of my thoughts and emotions. I do things that seem counter-productive to the overwork culture of twenty-first century corporate America like taking three weeks of vacation to play sports and plant tomatoes, or write poems and short prose pieces on a nightly basis, and know that I deserve it. I get -- probably 28 out of every 30 days of each month -- a full night, eight hours, of sleep.

Describing life as a non-drinker, however, is challenging. Our culture is that of a drinker. Non-drinkers are categorized as deviants, somehow, as threats to a sense of normality. Many find solace in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. I am afraid to visit Alcoholics Anonymous because I, too, feel threatened by the category of deviancy that AA seems to house: the people who admit themselves to be alcoholics, the people who share their stories of having drinking problems. I fear the stigma that surrounds the woman who attends social functions with a glass of ice tea in her hand, or who sips Perrier from a bottle.

I also worry about the loss of friends, the loss of a social circle that might come with non-drinking.

In short, almost everyone I know drinks. Some of them a little; some of them a lot. All of them seem to have no problem with their intake and behavior. I realize that I once belonged to that group, and I feel awkward when I ask my husband to limit his drinking to beer (which I've never been fond of) and to request that the occasional dinner guest not bring a bottle of wine. At this stage in my life as a non-drinker, I feel that I can be around drinkers, but not much and especially not in my own home. I fear that my ability to move in the circle of friends and new acquaintances in which I once felt extremely comfortable has been severely curtailed.

Still, each morning that I wake up, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the difficult decision I made.