Sunday, June 28, 2015

Granddaddy's Fig Preserves

Thirty seconds ago, I heard the lid pop into place on a jelly jar filled with warm fig preserves. Looking over to the backlit jars, I can just barely make out the thin slices of pale lemon rind, candied through the process, interspersed throughout the jar.  Nostalgia that hits so hard, I can, literally, taste it.

Thirty five years ago I helped my Grandaddy Lawton for a week during the early summer.  I dug up beds for his jonquils and built gravel 'thank-you-ma'am's' along his driveway.  And I helped him with his canning.  Summer canning on Lawton Mountain was a magical thing. Grandaddy took bushels of green beans and made pyramids of quarts of canned beans.  Bushels of sweet corn yielded mason jars filled with corn for all seven families.  Tomatoes became canned tomato juice - the basis of many a Bloody Mary - although that was NEVER their intent.  Baptists, after all, never intend to make their mixers. And they made jelly and preserves.

Grandaddy and Grandmama both had lived through the Depression, and it marked them.  They were frugal, and they used things until they needed fixing, and then they fixed them.  They did not buy extra stuff just because it was available; it was a way of life that didn't dispose of things just because they got old. 

Canning was a big part of their frugality, and their way of life.  The House in the Mountains (that was the only name I ever heard it called - never abbreviated or shortened) was the site of monumental canning efforts that extended from late spring throughout the summer, and the results were labeled and set in OCD-compliant rows in the pantry.

But the two jewels of the canning crown were the muscadine jelly and fig preserves.  Each teaspoon that was ever scooped from one of those jelly jars was liquid gold - and it was rationed out as such by the miserly jelly-bean counters in my household.  Because once it was gone, it was gone forever.  Until next season.

And one year, thirty five years ago, I got to help Grandaddy make the fig preserves.

The cutting of the stems from thee figs.  The slicing of the lemon.  The cooking of huge vats of figs, sugar, lemon and water, until all that was left was the citrus aroma, and the liquid gold of reduced figs.  Ladling the syrup into jars, licking fingers sticky with sap. A little nibble of the lemon rind in between efforts.  Into the pressure cooker, watching carefully to finish the canning process without blowing it all up.

And all throughout the process, the overwhelming smell of fig.

This weekend I took Kathe over to the grounds of my work, where a colleague of mine planted fig trees a decade or so ago.  They are now enormous trees, and in fifteen minutes we had collected a couple of gallons of figs. 

And I found a recipe that seemed very much like what my Granddaddy made (appended below, from this website).  And all afternoon, I got lost in the memory of working side by side with Granddaddy.

There are moments in life that speak to you.  For me, this was one. There is nothing like the flavor of goods canned in the home. Nothing that brings the memories back like leaning over the hot stove, stirring the pot to release the aroma-heavy steam. Even roadside stand canned goods, with all of their Mom&Pop labels and support-your-local-organic-farm caché cannot compare.

All afternoon, I labored over five pots of fig-related items.  Habanero-fig chutney, jalapeno-fig chutney, cardomom-fig jam, and a fig jam that ended up as a filling for fig newtons. (For the record, the newtons could have been submitted as a 'nailed it' pinterest fail, but they were SCRUMPTIOUS.)

And a few jars of the most glorious fig preserves ever.  Just like Granddaddy and I once made.

Bayou Woman's recipe.  See her online description here.


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