I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue…
Galway Kinnell, from “Blackberry Eating”
We’re standing at the end of the baking aisle, my mother and Luci and I, picking up and squinting at box after box of Gelfix, Germany’s answer to American Certo, that pectin-infused magic that is key to making jam.
We’ve already picked the blackberries, several yogurt buckets’ worth, which are now in the freezer, waiting to become jam. Because when your mom comes to visit in early August–your mom who made gallons of jam every summer throughout your childhood–well, you don’t really have a choice. Toddler in the backpack, you go out, all three of you, to “pick boo-bays” for a few days. You order some jars on Amazon. You make the jam.
Now, pectin is the last obstacle between us and a hot, sticky afternoon of jamming, so we try to make an educated guess. We’d been instructed by a colleague of mine last week on the different “strengths” of Gelfix, depending on the ratio of sugar to fruit that you want in your jam. There’s 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. All assume that you’re using more fruit than sugar (or at least an equal amount).
“But your recipe,” I ask my mom, “It calls for what? Almost double the sugar?”
She nods, picking up another box, as I study the directions on the back of the 1:1 version. Since neither of us know exactly what pectin even is–thus whether adding more or less would be likely to compensate for the increased sugar–we go with the nuclear option. We’re going to use the German recipe on the box. Adventure!
The next afternoon finds us at the stove, taking turns measuring, stirring, and jarring some truly magnificent jam. My mom is skeptical at first, keeping her trusty personal jam recipe in the back of her mind, but with venturesome good nature proceeds with the German recipe. The result, we both decide while biting into slices of rustic bread with butter and thick blankets of blackberry jam, is intoxicating. It is the flavor of a Pacific Northwest childhood, hours and days of berry-picking, stained and thorn-pricked fingers picking up soft slices of whole wheat bread with fresh, warm jam. The recipe was different, but this still tastes like home.
It’s amazing how a taste can transport. A long time ago, on a homesick afternoon on a farm in Austria, I tried to make chocolate chip cookies, with little success. The cookies were horribly ugly and crunchy, flat and pale. Far from providing comfort or familiarity, they were embarrassing and sad. I’ve since learned that baking here, with different-weighted flours and slightly softer butter, is something of a rite of passage, something to master once you’ve lived here for a while. Nine years later, I can make cookies better here than in America, where the ingredients have become just foreign enough to be unpredictable. Home is where the cookies are best.
As new staff and students begin to trickle into Kandern, and returning ones pick up where they left off after summers of travel (or, like us, summers at the pool), I’m thinking about what it takes to feel at home somewhere. Relationships and vocation are the things we talk about, the things that are supposed to (and mostly do) matter most. But sometimes home is also having furniture you like–whether it’s Ikea or antique–or unpacking the box that had your paintings and favorite mugs in it. And sometimes it’s making a recipe you remember, and making it well.