Thursday, July 15, 2010

What makes us do the things we do….

     I’ve been practicing the art of canning figs for many years. It’s a ritual that takes place every year at this time. The figs always ripen the first two weeks in July, no matter what is happening. I find that there is something about going through the process that brings comfort to my soul.
     First of all, I love being out in the orchard. I have six Celeste fig trees as well as LSU and Black fig trees. My Celeste fig trees range from my smallest tree at two feet in height to my biggest tree that tops out at six feet. I’d have more but my husband, being the wise man he is, put his foot down, and asked me how was I going to pick and can all the figs that they would eventually produce? Bewildered, I just shrugged my shoulders; I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I just stood there with another little baby fig tree in my hand that needed a good home. I eventually had to agree because even my three-foot tree produces enough figs to last the year.
     I remember the huge fig trees that stood guard along my grandmother’s driveway when I was a child. They were always the first thing I spotted as we rounded the bend in the road to her house. I never liked raw figs, but her fig preserves were another matter all together. I could sit and shovel in those lush, sweet figs soaking in sugar syrup by the mouthful until the jar was empty if I were allowed to. There was always a rival going on between my two favorites; fig preserves and a mayonnaise sandwich (and I still love both of them today.)
     Secondly, there is the ritual of the picking of the figs (kind of like the running of the bulls, only not as dangerous.) At the moment, two of my fingers are raw from picking figs; but it doesn’t stop me. There is something about plowing through the huge fig leaves to find those lush, purple, ripened figs each day that make you keep coming back for more. It’s akin to receiving a Grand Prize! Picking figs is not always the easiest of jobs. Sure, you commune with nature, but also with the dreaded wasps. So far, I’ve never been stung; my husband, on the other hand has not been quite so lucky (but I’d sting him too. He wants ALL of the figs!) I think they sense that I am not a danger to them. I am perfectly content to share the tree with them and the birds and I always make sure to leave the ripe figs at the top of the tree for the birds. It’s only fair; they eat the insects around the house.
     After filling up my bucket with figs, I usually head back inside the house to wash my hands. While picking figs may soothe the soul, the sap irritates and causes an extreme harsh reaction on my fingertips; in other words, my fingertips are raw. I fill my bucket of figs with water, and stand there swishing them around until all of the bugs have been forced from their hiding places and are desperately trying to swim for their lives. The harsh reality of death soon takes hold of them, grabbing them and sucking their last breath out (gee, but that sounds a little harsh.) The wasps are okay, these little juice suckers are not! I then continue my routine of spreading them out on a tray to complete the ripening process overnight.
     Thirdly, there is the cooking and canning phase. The first step in this phase is cutting off the top of the fig and then slicing the fig in half. After this chore has been completed, the figs gets tossed into the pot. Once the figs have all been prepared, the cooking begins. The cooking process takes several hours on a very low fire and as I stand at the stove and stir, my mind is transported back in time to the wonderful memories of my grandmother and her preserves.
    I look around my own kitchen, the one I modeled after hers. I remember as a child sitting at her kitchen table eating my toast with fig preserves and looking up at the glass-fronted cabinets that lined her kitchen wall. Her dishes were there for all to see; and also her prized preserves. When I commenced with the planning of my own kitchen, her kitchen was the one that my mind kept wandering back too. I’ve seen a lot of fancy kitchens but the simplicity of hers and the love that was always present made me long to replicate it. I have white painted glass-fronted cabinets in my kitchen today. My preserves and jellies occupy some of the shelves along with my Wedgewood China. To me, it has become a tribute to my grandmother and I love making memories in “our” kitchen.
     Getting back to my preserve making, after the figs have cooked and thickened, it is finally time to add the sugar and begin the process of ladling the preserves into the waiting jars. There is one more part of this ritual before it is finally completed. I refer to it as the “popping of the lids.” The popping of the lids happens as the hot preserves inside the jar cause the lids to suction down and seal. The process causes the lids to make a popping sound. If you have never made preserves, you may not know about this part. I never tire of hearing my jars “go to sleep.”  It's as though they are breathing their final breath before giving up their spirit. When I hear the pop, pop, pop sound coming from the kitchen, I know  that another batch of preserves have been completed and along with that, memories.

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