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Memories of ‘putting food by’

November 21, 2013
Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

Last week, as I walked through the hardware store, I stopped short in front of a display. There, spread invitingly, were dozens of gleaming glass jars, just begging to be filled with jams and jellies, vegetables and juices.

The sight took me back to long-ago harvest times up north and the hectic period known as "canning season."

Raised in Texas, I knew nothing about the annual adventure known as canning. But when hubby George and I relocated to his native Wesleyville, Pa., my resourceful mother-in-law, Dorothy, introduced me to the time honored activity known as "putting food by."

She proudly showed me the larder she had established in the basement, shelf after shelf of canned vegetables and fruits, juices and jams. It was a storehouse of flavor and nutrition to last throughout the coming Pennsylvania winter.

Over the next weeks, with patience and good humor, Mom Schenk taught me the intricacies of putting up the tasty harvest from the family garden as well as the offerings of local produce stands.

Together we spent many steamy but enjoyable hours in Mom's kitchen or mine, working through bushels of fruits and vegetables. From peaches and pears to grapes and apples, we turned mountains of fresh produce into a collection of glistening jars of old-fashioned comfort.

And, with experience, I finally had the nerve to branch out into some specialties of my own. One of the family's favorites was elderberry jam, made from such tiny wild berries that it took our three berry pickers, and their Dad, long searches to gather enough of the wee fruits for even one batch.

Another favorite production of mine was a combination of preserves I developed that joined the sweetness of peaches and the tartness of plums. I made up as many jars of "Peach 'N Plum jam" as possible, since the supply always seemed to vanish long before the winter was over.

But without a doubt, the Schenk family winner in those long-ago canning days was apple butter. The yummy creation was a joint effort of the whole five-member team, since it was made from windfall apples we gathered on family outings to Meehl's fruit farm in North East, Pa.

On apple butter day, it took careful preparation of a variety of ingredients added to a large supply of peeled and sliced apples. The whole concoction simmered on the stove in a big stew pot for hours, giving the entire house a perfume unequalled by any scent I've found since.

I loved stirring the fragrant blend with my old wooden spoon as it slowly bubbled and thickened. Eventually, the separate elements merged into a delicious mixture like nothing found on a store shelf.

Spread liberally on a slice of warm homemade bread, the apple butter had an effect that came close to a heavenly experience.

It's been many years since the steamy days in Mom Schenk's kitchen or the sessions of stirring bubbling apple butter with a wooden spoon. Instead, these days, when winter is on its way to our current home in Florida, there is no big push to put up bushels of pears and turn windfall apples into butter. Rows of colorful jars no longer fill the pantry shelves. The stew pot has long been gone from my kitchen cabinet.

Yet even now, when I see a display of pints and quarts, eager to be filled, I can almost hear the satisfying "pop" of the cooling jars, sealing in nature's goodness.

As anyone who has experienced canning season can tell you, there's something comforting, something satisfying, something good for the soul in putting food by.



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