I seem to be in the habit of making preserves that err on the impenetrable. The point at which my promising, bubbling vat of liquid reaches a set seems fated always to coincide with a climax of domestic events…and there you have it: fruit concrete. Last year’s marmalade suffered from a toddler drama and an unscheduled phone call from a long neglected friend, and today’s jam was a classic of its genre: With said toddler gone for a few hours, I embarked with confidence on a batch of jam… whilst also sorting out a pile of forgotten toys and baby things for next week’s car boot sale, cooking a stew for supper and finishing the third load of washing for the day. As I boiled up our precious cache of foraged blackberries, at the very point I noticed a ripple on the test dish, toddler arrived home with her two companions, dirty wellies and a picnic bag. They were barricaded at the door by all the (exciting) forgotten toys and baby things that I had just put down on the way to the shed… At this point I should explain that our kitchen door is our main entrance and that our kitchen, as well as being something of a corridor, is also the very smallest room in the house. What ensued involved the warmest welcome and most earnest thankyou-for-having-her that I could muster while ladling hot liquid into the most inconveniently tall thin jars (given the situation I hadn’t foreseen), consequent jam spillage on the floor, several adults struggling for foot room and a toddler rediscovering, reclaiming and scattering across the floor all her long-lost treasures… and then suddenly needing a poo.
On reflection, it is probably not my jam making or my timing that is the problem… more my propensity to cram rather too many activities into a day… particularly at the weekend. Needless to say, when my husband returned back expecting a wifey all blissed-out from solitary jam-making… he found something quite different. Later on, he proffered that I might look to my baby for guidance on doing less, keeping my life simple. At that moment I’m afraid he received short shrift. My baby is indeed an incredibly peaceful, reflective soul… and she has been a great inspiration and source of energy and insight in this vein… but at that particular moment my retort involved a rather clipped reference to the very busy people who ensure that our baby is provided with food, shelter, clean clothes and can hence keep her life simple. I feel a little glib and sheepish about it all now, but this little exchange has provoked some reflection on that holy grail: the ‘simple life’.
I don’t deny that there are untold areas of our life here that we could simplify and with good reason, but there are instances where I could ask ‘at what cost?’ or ‘at whose cost?’. I found myself musing on something similar as I contemplated the biscuit packet that I found in the Quaker ‘tea cupboard’ this morning. It was one of those moments where Quaker ethics seemed to collide (as, they sometimes do). Shop bought food, unlike home-made preserves, serves to some extent to preserve our energy, to simplify things for us, but at the expense of someone else’s energy/simplicity, however indirectly. I sometimes feel ridiculous for exhausting myself by trying to home-make so much of what we use but this is a crucial part of why I do it – at least I’m using up my energy rather than the unquantifiable reserves of a faceless other.
But could I have averted today’s jam moment? Did I in fact need to make that jam?
This particular batch was intended for Christmas presents, so in a drive to save money and give meaningful gifts, the jam making feels fairly important. But nevertheless, the whole issue of preserving rather exercises me. It seems so accepted as part of the ‘good-life’, yet it’s difficult to ignore the vast quantities sugar and/or vinegar it tends to rely on. (I appreciate Lacto-fermentation is another matter entirely). In my, admittedly lay, research on digestion, sugar, particularly, is far from nutritionally key, and the other ingredients in the preserve would be far better eaten without it… straight off the bush or out of the ground… and with mud on. Helen Nearing writes persuasively about this in her book ‘Simple Food’… and my mother still recounts many years ago being given a slab of home-made bread with butter and crushed raspberries (rather than jam) on it as remarkable and delicious. Admittedly, this was in the summer, and the vagaries of our climate have a lot to do with our habit of preserving, but we can always share our gluts with others, and there will always be someone with something in season that’s good to eat unadulterated, even in midwinter. Of course, the form of barter I’m alluding to takes serious community cohesion (jam!), but that’s what’s so exciting about food politics. And if it can preserve a little of my own energy then it’s an idea worth entertaining.