Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile of so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
Last time I told you what Ma grew, and this time how she (and the rest of us) preserve it. There is a bit more to it, because of the peaches, and that shall involve a whole new era about My Little Town, when I started 8th grade. Many of those folks are still living, and I shall say only nice things about them, because they are all nice folks.
Only recently have I had the excellent luck to get back in touch with more than two of them, and as soon as many of them realized that I am not quite dead yet, they are being very nice to me, as they were to me at my school. But, this is about Ma's preservation techniques.
Sorry to be so late tonight! I got to talking with my special friend and time flew by us. Here we go.
Most of the really early stuff in our location does not preserve well. Lettuce, forget it! Same for radishes. I guess that you COULD can turnips, be even Ma did not like them well enough to do so. However, the turnip greens do can well, and she would run off several pints of them, using the pressure cooker.
The greens were the earliest. The mustard and turnip ones first, from the garden. But she only liked them in season. What Ma and I really liked was POKE! It turns out that you can grow the domestic stuff for several months, by modulating when one plants it, but poke is wild and has a four week season. I remember picking poke with Ma many spring days, and then we would take it back, clean, it and can it.
We would pick it, breaking it off at the stem. Ma preferred the leaves, and I now prefer the fat, asparagus looking young shoots. The preservation techniques are the same. First you "look" it, meaning that any bad spots are broken off, and any weeds or grass is rejected as it is picked. They you took it home and washed it, again picking off any bad spots and any part of root. Then she would wilt it in its own volume of water, bringing it to the boil, allowing it to boil for five minutes. They it gets cooled enough to handle, and drained.
Pretty much all of the phytolacctin and saponins are thrown away (note that the first discarded water is very foamy, consistent with saponins, and she rinsed the remaining greens with boiling water. Then it was packed into sterilized pint jars, and then processed in the pressure canner for the appropriate time. We always had good poke to eat with catfish, hushpuppies, and slaw for the rest of the year.
I am going is a roughly chronological order, and next came the strawberries. Depending on the year, and thus how many strawberries we had, Ma would sometimes make strawberry jam with whole berries, sugar, and commercial pectin. Since there were a number of us to eat it, she usually put it up in quarts, but sometimes would can pints. But she always froze them, and in lean years would not make jam in favor of freezing them. We all pitched in helping to prepare them. My job, since I was little, was to take a spoon and remove the "husk" from the top of the berries. We called it "capping" them, and I think that this is a more apt term than "husking", which implies that the entire berry is covered. Once they were washed and capped, Ma would slice them, and then put sugar on them. After standing for a while for some of the juice to come, she would pack them into quart Crown Imperial polyethylene freezer containers. I still have a couple of them somewhere. Then she would take a piece of masking tape and put the date on it, and then into the freezer.
Since she grew Ozark Beauty strawberries, we did this a number of times during the season since they are an everbearing variety. Commercial producers like the so called "June bearing" varieties, because they give one huge crop all at once, reducing the need for labor to just a short period.
Next came the green beans. She always grew Kentucky wonders, and the family liked to allow them to get rather mature (but not yet tough) so that the seeds were fairly well developed. We would pick a big basket of them, then she or my mum would wash them. Then we would sit on the porch and string them, because at that level of maturity there was a definite string on the sutures. Once they were strung, we would snap them into pieces about an inch, give or take, long. Then into the refrigerator overnight, and the next morning she would commence to can them. She always put green beans in quart jars, along with a teaspoon of canning salt, and top them off with cold water (the "cold pack" method). They she would put them in the pressure canner and process them according to her Ball Blue Book. Except for an occasional broken jar, I never remember a failure.
About the same time, the purple hull peas were ready. After we picked them, we would have a pea hulling party on the porch, sort of like the green bean stringing and snapping. Purple hull peas have a hull too tough to eat, so they have to be shelled out completely. By the way, these peas are extremely resistant to insect damage and only very rarely would you find one with damage. The next morning, she would start canning them, using the canner in a similar manner to that for green beans. She also always used quart jars for them. Like the strawberries and green beans, we did this several time per season since they have a very long bearing period. When you hull very many purple hull peas, your thumbs and fingers get very stained, and one year Ma just happened to get a fungal nail infection on one of her thumbs. She blamed the purple hull peas for that until she died, but of course they had nothing to do with it.
The tomatoes were also coming on about then. We would pick a great big old basket and bring them in and wash them, and then she would take her "keen little knife" and cut away any blemishes or bad parts, and core them. She always raised red oxheart tomatoes, so the cores were never very large unless they were a bit underripe. Ma would start this in the morning (except for the picking) because you are better off to get tomatoes done all the same day. Besides, refrigerating tomatoes severely damages their flavor because of the destruction at lower temperatures of a key flavoring chemical, Z-3-dexenal (by the way, I have not been able to verify this chemical name, as it is not a proper IUPAC one. Anyone with the proper IUPAC name is encouraged to post a comment). Ma did not know about flavor and fragrance chemicals, but she sure knew that room temperature ones have more flavor, even after canning.
After blemish removal and coring, she would dip them in boiling water until the skin started to crinkle, and then put them in cold water. It was my job to slip the skins off of them and put the fruit into a large bowl. After they were all slipped, she would cut them into manageable sizes to pack into quart jars. She would fill the jars with tomatoes, and then top the jars off with the juice left in the bowl. Then she would add a teaspoon of salt to each quart and process them in a water bath canner. She did not like to pressure can them, and after many experiments, I tend to agree with her, but I know that many folks from What's for Dinner? differ. It is a matter of taste. Since the red oxhearts were very high in acid, there was no risk of botulism, but with less acidic tomatoes it is wise to add 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid to each quart.
Sometimes she would take green tomatoes and dice them fine, then add diced hot and mild banana peppers and some diced onion and mix it up. She would then put them in pint jars and add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and top it off with half vinegar/half water. She would process them in the water bath and called the product "pickililly". It made a nice relish for sandwiches. The vinegar kept it safe.
She would can a little okra for my Great Aunt Edna, her sister, and to have some to use for cooking. Except for Edna, no one liked boilt okra, all of us agreeing that it looked like a bowlful of green slugs! But Edna loved it! Those went into pints, with half a teaspoon of salt and then into the pressure canner. She rarely canned more than one cannerful per year because there just was not that much demand. Most of the okra got eaten daily, sliced thin, coated with corn meal seasoned with salt and pepper, and fried (she loved Crisco with some bacon grease in it for flavor).
She did not make pickles very much, since we did not eat very many of them and the jars were better used for other things. We did have fresh cucumbers, but never preserved ones. Likewise, she would not bother to can other things that we either did not eat that much of or was cheap, like tomato juice, sauce, and paste.
During the summer when the sweet corn got ripe, we would freeze it. Once again, we would have a "cornhusking party" on the porch. Ma and my mum would shuck the ears and remove most of the silk, and then my job was to get the rest of the silk off of them. Then off to the kitchen to blanch the corn, then quench it is ice water, drain it, and then bag and freeze it. Freezer bags were just becoming popular at the time, but these were the kind that you had to tie by hand or use the little twist tie. We put up quite a bit of corn in the freezer. We never canned corn, because Ma had read somewhere about people getting botulism from home canned corn. Besides, we liked it on the cob better anyway.
That is for the most part the fate of our garden produce insofar as preservation went. However, there were two more items that Ma would preserve every season. First were peaches. We did not have any trees, but at the time they were cheap and there was a really good local market in Fort Smith called The Food Center. It was run by the Meyers family, and many years later I actually went to high school with Ginny. We probably met when we were little, and it was only in high school that we realized it. In any event, western Arkansas is a fairly significant producer of really good peaches. Every summer we would drive to Fort Smith and get a bushel or two at The Food Center. They were grown likely less than 25 or 30 miles away. Ma liked Elberta ones because, like most freestone peaches, they were softer and sweeter than clingstone ones, mainly developed for canning.
We would take our peaches home and carefully go through them that afternoon to remove any ones that were going bad. These peaches were tree ripened, and have an extremely short shelf life, but are to me one of the best fruits in the world! We would eat our fill on fresh ones that night, and the next morning we would process them. Much like tomatoes, peaches can have their skins slipped with the boiling water treatment. Of course, Ma would cut off any bad places and blemishes first. She would scald and quench them, and I would slip the skins. Once skint, Ma would take a knife and halve them, and the pit would fall out. Then she would slice them into decent sized slices. Then it was the appropriate amount of sugar and a wait period to allow juice to develop. She would then pack them into the same kind of Crown Imperial quart freezer containers and date them, and then freeze them. We had what were essentially fresh peaches year round!
Just a note about sugaring fruit before freezing: the sugar helps to reduce ice crystal size, making the fruit get less mushy when thawed. While not QUITE fresh, both the strawberries and peaches were wonder just with pastry and cream, and of course could be made into pies, cobblers, and whatnot just as well as fresh fruit.
The last thing that we often preserved were apples. Once again, we had no trees, but western Arkansas raises a fair amount of apples, too. Back to The Food Center for a bushel or two of Jonathan apples. By the way, Jonathans are one of the very best dual purpose apples, being delicious raw, with a very spicy scent and a nice balance of sugar and acid. They also cook extremely well, not falling apart like the so called Red Delicious ones (I find little to be delicious about that variety, by the way). Ma would pare, core, and slice the apples and put them in water in which she had put a new product, FruitFresh. That kept them from browning. We know that FruitFresh is nothing but Vitamin C and sugar, so you can do the same thing at home for only a few cents by crushing up a couple of 1000 mg Vitamin C tablets and keep the apple slices under it.
Now, Ma liked to slice the apples so that they made rings (for historical reasons, to be explained in a minute). We would then put them on an old wooded screen door that my father had modified by taking off the steel screen (aluminum screening was just then coming out, and fiberglass screening was unknown at the time) and replacing it with a couple of layers of cheesecloth. Then Ma would drape more cheesecloth over the top to keep away the insects. We left it in full sun during the day, and would bring it inside at night (dew is bad in that high humidity area). The next day we would take them back outside to dry some more. After a few days, they were quite leathery and could be bagged and stored for a long time. Ma usually kept them in the freezer for good measure, but allowed that they really did not need to be frozen. She would rehydrate them in a saucepan (to us, a "stewer") and make fried apple pies from them. MMMMMMM! I liked then, and still like now, just to nibble on the dried apple rings. I dried some last year using my dehydrator.
The cores and parings did not go to waste. They went into a separate bowl with its own FruitFresh, and Ma would simmer them to extract the color and pectin (it turns out that the cores and peels have LOTS of pectin in them) and either can the extract to mix half and half with other fruit juices to make jelly (this extract is so high in pectin that commercial pectin is not necessary), or just to make apple jelly out of them. I still do the same thing, just as I did with the cores and parings from the ones that I dried last year. I have an open half pint of apple jelly that I made in my refrigerator right now.
Well, that is about it for our seasonal preservation protocol that lasted for many years in my youth. After I got old enough, I was trusted to use the sharp knives to slice and dice, but my earliest memories were presented here. If you have early childhood memories that you would like to share, please comment liberally.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith
The Stars Hollow Gazette,