This is a photograph of a jar of water. The only product I managed to seal in a vintage jar with a glass top, a rubber ring and a metal screw top. I tried three times to put up a jar of preserves “like my grandmother did.” That’s the language in the catalogue of our annual fall fair. In honour of Canada’s 150th, the theme of the fair this year was “heritage seeds and breeds” with an emphasis on “vintage” everything. When I saw the class for “vintage preserves” I thought it would be a snap. I remembered the jars on the canning shelf at home, filled with strawberries and raspberries and peaches. The fruit sucked tightly to the top while the bottom quarter of the jar showed only syrup. That’s how you know the jar has sealed properly. The vacuum pulls the fruit to the top.
I have a green gage plum tree — heritage breed, thought I. The green plums in my vintage jar will look nice. I’ll enter the category. After a hunt through thrift stores for a vintage jar and a visit to the hardware store for new rubber rings, I set about to make my one jar of preserves. Thirty minutes to sterilize the equipment, make the syrup and cold pack the jar. Then 20 minutes in the canner. Don’t know why my mother made such a big deal out of such a simple operation.
Ahem! The seal leaked. My canner was full of plum syrup and the fruit, packed against the top of the jar when I took it out of the canner, slowly sank to the middle in a ragged mess. So . . . not so easy after all. Oh well, I’ve got more plums. Try again. This time I took extra care to be sure the top of the jar was free of any drops of syrup and wiped dry before I added the rubber ring, the glass top and the metal band. Into the canner it went, but despite having the heat turned to high, it took forever to get the water back up to a rolling boil. Result? Leaked juice and floating fruit. Funnily enough, when I tried to open the jar it was very well sealed and I had to pry a knife into the rubber ring to get it to open. Sadly, the syrup no longer covered the fruit. Not a prize winning effort.
Just to prove something to myself, I repeated the canning process with nothing but water in the jar. It sealed, but I couldn’t put that in the fair. I resorted to a different vintage jar, filled with marmalade and sealed with paraffin, another vintage method of finishing off preserves. The judges thought it was “just lovely,” but didn’t warrant a ribbon. Sigh!
Despite my multiple failures, the experiment was worth every minute. As an author of Historical Romance, I’m always on the lookout for authentic information on life as it was lived in other times. It’s one thing to go to a museum and look at an old-fashioned kitchen, to see jars of preserves on the shelf and to admire a hem-stitched pillowcase. It’s quite another to participate in the creation or use of those items. So, my failure was a great learning experience. As Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
Well, I’ve learned quite a lot, including renewed admiration for my foremothers. If I couldn’t get the water to boil and the seal to hold with all my modern conveniences, including an electric stove, imagine doing it on a wood-fired cook stove during an Ontario summer. No wonder they got up at dawn, eager to get the work done before the hottest part of the day. They used the sweltering afternoon hours to do “light” work like mending and knitting and singing to children. I bow before their skill, toil, and indomitable spirits. I also apologize for every time I took them and their work for granted.
Oh, one other thing. I did win a “best in show” rosette for my bowl of roses. It’s nice to have a few successes to temper the failures.
Remember to comment on this blog to have your name entered to win a copy of my e-book, “The Man Who Hated Christmas and other short stories.” Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.