Vintage Life: Wild Blackberry Jam
Our guest blogger, Molly Fisk, is a writer, NPR commentator, life coach, and artist living in the Sierra foothills. Her latest book is Blow-Drying a Chicken. She’s won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and been nominated for Poet Laureate of California. Follow her on Facebook and visit mollyfisk.com for more.
When I was in high school, I lived in a small town just north of San Francisco. It was technically a suburb, but usually when we think of suburbs, the vision includes identical ranch-style houses, each with driveway, two-car garage, definitely a slice of green lawn. There were a few houses like that down in the flat part of town, but most of us lived on the flanks of a mountain, with crazy-curved roads and a hodgepodge of houses that looked nothing like one another. People parked on the street, or in open carports built on stilts off the side of the hill. There were no sidewalks, few fences, and at a certain point the residential area gave way to state park, with fire roads and trails to hike on.
My family lived in a slightly run-down Victorian with a remodeled, open-plan kitchen where we spent most of our time. Along with normal kitchen stuff, there was a dining table, stereo, and one corduroy sofa everyone wanted to sit on (including the dogs and cat). This is where I learned to cook. Omelets. Spinach pie. Spaghetti sauce with red wine and mushrooms. I watched my mother paintstakingly recreate Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon and chocolate mousse. I watched my dad throw ingredients nonchalantly over his shoulder into a frying pan, inventing delicious dinners with names like “Turkey Surprise!” My favorite cooking project, though, was blackberry jam. I loved everything about it: the quilted glass jars, the satisfaction of storing things up for later, and the process of really making something from beginning to end.
Because the town hadn’t been flattened and then developed, but grew organically up the mountain, there were lots of unoccupied pockets — vacant lots, open space too steep to build on — colonized by native blackberry canes. My best friend Peggy and I would set out on a Saturday morning, long-sleeved and blue jeaned against the prickers, each with a basket or some yoghurt containers, to wherever we’d decided that year’s best patch could be found. Peg was a faster picker than I, and taller, so she had more reach: she out-picked me two to one. But our main goal wasn’t winning, it was jamming. The minute our vessels were overflowing, we zoomed back to my kitchen and started pulling out the sugar and jars.
This was back in the olden days, 1971, but even then we were wary of processed things like store-bought pectin, so we added slices of apple to the crushed berries as they boiled. Sterile jars? Check. Sugar measured and added? Check. My steady hand ladled the steaming treasure into each glass container. Peggy poured paraffin we’d melted in an old coffee can to seal it in.
Almost always when making jam, there’s some left over that won’t fill a whole jar. Sadly, this has to be eaten right away on buttered toast. It’s a good way to test out whether the jam has “set,” though, and we were nothing if not diligent about quality control. We buckled down, inviting anyone else who was in the kitchen to join us, and suffered through this part of the job, too.