Among the many fantasy hobbies I have, one of my favorites is fantasy foraging. All winter long, I have Northeast Foraging on my bedside stand, attempting to memorize the facts for field garlic or may apples or fiddleheads so that on some future date I might be walking through the Fells, stop short and knowingly declare to my companion “Ah, it looks like the epazote is in season. Excellent, my last preserved set is nearly done, and my enchiladas simply aren’t the same without it!” Then (in my fantasy life) I’d take out my beautifully prepared foraging kit, expertly select a sustainable harvest of the plant in question, and then go home and use it in my latest home cooked meal that night.
I do have a great imagination, don’t I? It’s a consolation in this troubled age.
On Saturday, Adam and I took a run along a portion of the as-yet-unfinished Tri-Community Greenway. Running along, I spotted not two blocks from my house one of the approximately five plants I *can* ID at sight – the ubiquitous Japanese Knotweed.
Today, in a break in the rain, Adam and I returned to the spot, knives in hand, to make our harvest. A very very short time later we had about 10x more knotweed than we needed, and I returned to the kitchen. In my fozen reserves are one pound of chopped rhubarb from last season. It’s difficult to get one’s rhubarb and one’s strawberries to tie out perfectly, especially when one has preteen boys who like strawberries. So here’s my plan – I’m going to make rhubarb knotweed jam, using a rhubarb jam recipe. It’ll probably be really quite sour. It may be terrible. It may be amazing. Here’s the journey of discovery!
Step 1: Cut up the knotweed
Fortunately, my handy foraging book explains how to prep the knotweed for use. I only used the smallest shoots, guaranteeing tenderness. I contemplate, cutting them up, how much like octopus they look. I’ve given up eating octopus on the belief that they’re too smart to eat. The same may be true of Japanese Knotweed, but I show no mercy to the invasives.
Step 2: Decide on a jam recipe
So here’s a secret for you. There aren’t THAT many variables in a jam recipe. Basically you have fruit mass, sourness, sugar & pectin. The only tricky one is pectin – some plants have it natively (mostly apples). Most don’t. I ended up with:
1 lb cut japanese knotweed
1 lb frozen cut rhubarb
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter (I always add this, despite no recipes ever calling for it, to keep the foaming down. #secrets)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (I debated – this was definitely sour enough – but decided the anti-oxidation factor was worthwhile)
1 packet liquid pectin (Certo)
First I boiled the rhubarb & knotweed in the water until tender.
Then I added the butter & sugar & lemon juice.
Once it was at a roiling boil, I added the pectin & boiled for one additional minute.
Then I jarred it.
Step 3: Realize that making up recipes is harder than it looks
Japanese knotweed is green. Rhubarb is dominantly red. When you mix red and green together, whaddya get? That’s right. Puke brown. With greenish flecks. The color was just… wrong. Bad wrong. You think about taste in a recipe. Perhaps while baking you think about leavening. But you forget about color, about scent and about texture. Or rather, I did. This one had like 5/7 correct. That is, er, not enough.
Still I sallied on. Lots of foods go through ugly duckling stages. And hey, were we so shallow that we wouldn’t eat food just because it tasted red and looked brown? Well, maybe. I started coming up with a list of people who were known to be polite, regardless of provocation. You know, possible future jam-gift recipients.
Step 4: But how does it look in practical applications?
A great joy in life is mopping up hot jam with fresh bread. The moment of truth arrived. I have 8 jars of this stuff. Would this be my stocking stuffer at Christmas to the long-suffering? Would it be so bad I should just pour it out here and now? Had I discovered a new culinary delight, the likes of which the world had never seen? It was the moment of truth.
And it was… pretty good? Not bad? Probably better than the jam you get at Denny’s in the little square Smucker’s packages? Perhaps? If you’re into a sort of, er, greenish flavor overtone? And it doesn’t look quite as bad in the jar as in the pot, either.
Step 5: Make other people eat it
I didn’t invite anyone to dinner tonight. No, I rather informed them that they were eating my food. Unless they had a better idea, which I knew they didn’t. I didn’t invite someone who would give me a polite platitude, but rather someone who would tell it to me like it is. I got a mixed reaction – I got neither a flat rejection, nor a subtle request to go home with a jar.
So, all in all, probably a B- effort. That’s below the level I’d need to repeat the experiment.
What did we learn from all this?
1) It’s easy to harvest too much Japanese knotweed, but no one cares if you do
2) Maybe it would be good pickled. I liked the shape of the circles. Raw, it’s ok but nothing you’d ever crave. It is apparently very high in resveratrol, but I’m pretty sure the 2:1 sugar to weed ratio more than counterbalances that. Also, I’m pretty sure resveratrol is just an excuse to drink wine.
3) I actually liked it as a jam ingredient except for the critical failing of color. I am trying to think of a seasonal, local green fruit to pair it with. I thought of green grape (I think a sweeter pairing would be better than sour/sour). If you like mint, I think that would be a really interesting pairing (cut down on the sugar and make it a meat sauce). It might also go well in a pie. I’m thinking blueberry would overcome any green and balance it out. I have quite a bit set aside in the freezer, so I might actually try this latter option.
So friends! If you would like some extremely nutritious, hyper-local, small batch artesenal jam, let me know. I have seven jars currently looking for a home – first come, first served!
My plum tree has been on my mind a lot lately – as I wrote about last week. The kills of the last two winters have made my hypersensitive to this time of year. It’s a time of great hope and anticipation, and great fear. Will one of the first heralds of the spring be a white-decked lady, a debutante of the back yard effulgent in lacy buds? Or will the last jealous grasps of winter shear off her bloom yet again, like some jealous Disney villain? And just how cold does March need to be to kill summer’s hope?
I thought we might have escaped this year, but then the overnight forecast showed itself unkindly. I fretted in the days leading up to this weekend, wondering if my tree would make it. I found this very useful chart, upon which I anchored my fears. The temps were supposed to get down to 10 degrees. I have no idea what my backyard microclimate is. I’m not really sure what the budding stages are, but I am decided that bud swell seemed like the closest option. Even so, that looked to me like a significant killing frost – taking out maybe 50% of my buds? If only I could get the temps up for a little bit?
Adam and I swapped links on smudge pots and fans. I definitively ruled out renting a helicopter as a solution. (That’s actually a thing.) I am still not super sure I understand how fans raise temperatures, even though I read several articles on it. It also wasn’t clear to me how many degrees swing you could get using some of these techniques – and I needed quite a few degrees. But I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing and watch my plums die AGAIN! They deserve a chance!
My husband loves me dearly. He’s so patient with my insanity. After careful thinking, I decided our propane heater was too dangerous to leave running unattended – even out in the backyard in the snow. But we have this electric oil-filled space heater, see. It’s gentle heat – so no chance of fire. I’m not sure if it was enough heat, or if it could possibly make a difference. Still, under the waning light, we set up the space heater under the tree, hoping the cement wall would reflect the heat and help it stay warm.
Adam cooked up the idea to use insulation on the other side of the heater to further guide the warmth tree-ward. So he chopped up some staves, staple-gunned them to the insulation, and pounded them into the frozen soil. All without wearing a sweater, of course. We New Englanders basically give up on winter garments as a regular thing about this time of year, due to being sick of wearing them.
I have no idea if it worked. The buds all look the same, of course. The forecast shows the end of the killing frost (or at least it’s five degrees warmer tonight). The forecast looks quite chilly. The highs don’t break out of the 40s for the rest of the month. (By comparison, it got up to 70 in February.) But if April comes and goes and the green leaves break out and there were no blossoms – we’ll know that winter won despite our best efforts.
Many of you are familiar with my age-long quest to make Damson Plum Jam. It’s been six years now that I’ve had a plum tree in my yard, waiting for that magic year when the winter wouldn’t destroy the entire region’s stone fruit crop (it has the last two winters in a row), when my tree was mature enough, when those stupid cut-worms were off-timing so that I could FINALLY get some plums off my tree.
Friends, I have terrible news.
I’ve been keeping an eagle-eyed watch on my plum tree this year, largely due to the complete kills from the last two years. When the end of February hit and the weather was so warm, my plum tree started getting ideas about it possibly being spring. This is what’s killed my harvest the last two years. So I checked on bud progression every day, willing it to take it slow and not try to grow up too fast. (Parenting and plums have more in common than you think.) And I noticed this weird black stuff. I didn’t think too much of it. Trees have galls and weird things all the time. Surely this was just a weird thing. I poked at it. It seemed very hard, and it didn’t crack off. I resolved to look up what it was “later”.
Later arrived Sunday, in my survey of the state of blooms as we batten down for our third Nor’Easter in like 10 days. (Starting Tuesday. UGH.) I finally Googled “plum black knot” and the results curdled the pit of my stomach. It was like eating prunes, only I don’t have any prunes because I don’t have any plums and also I kind of like prunes.
Black knot is a fungal disease that strikes fear in the hearts of owners of plum trees. It doesn’t matter if they are edible plums or the decorative, landscaping variety, the trees could be fatally affected.
It seems so unfair! This tree has yet to bear a single plum! I don’t even know what a damson tastes like! I’ve been nurturing it for 7 years now. And now this! A number of sources were like “Yeah, if your tree has this you should probably just get rid of it.” Noooo!!!
With the thaw coming any day now, and the return of the warmer weather likely to happen SOMETIME in the next two weeks (please please please) Adam and I went out to deal with it immediately. If we were going to do this, completely and early was our best strategy. Maybe we can stop the spread to the other branches? There were six galls, but only six. I was still in my church dress. We ravaged the limbs of the quiescent tree with ruthless branch clippers. Limb after limb, studded with incipient buds, was severed and dropped onto the snowbanks below. We lost the second largest stem of the tree. This isn’t a great time to prune, either, since right now the tree is susceptible to more infections from these scars we inflicted. It feels like a long shot. Did we buy the tree time to at least have a few plums first? Is is a lost cause? Am I forever condemned to go damson plum jamless?
On Friday night at 6 pm, I stumbled in the door after a long week at work. There was no pie starter. There was no dinner plan. The house was unclean. Not a single pie had been made. I wrote a list of what needed to be done in the next 18 hours and stared it it with dismay.
By 7:30 my parents had taken the kids out to dinner, my husband was a dervish of cleaning efficiency and I had both the lard and butter pie starter cooling in the freezer. And when 1:59 pm hit on Saturday, I was ready. I’d made six pies: lemon meringue, blueberry, pecan, two chicken pot pies & a moussaka. Some people (Adam) quibbled about whether moussaka is really a pie. But, it’s my party and I’ll pie if I want to. The house was clean and all things party-ready. These are the miracles of Piemas and beloved helpful relatives.
I think I say this after every one of my fake holidays, but this was a particularly fine Piemas. There were many (many!) pies, but I think we actually ate more of them than usual. I wonder how many kilacalories were consumed in my house on Saturday? Lots. Lots and lots. There were vegan pies. There were meat-rich pies. There were pies of impeccable character and origin, such as apple pies. There were pies that showed that my friends are geniuses. Evil geniuses. Somehow five large pizzas were also demolished.
The conversation was also a particularly fine vintage. There were all sorts of connections made across slices – people with shared interests, people with shared professions, people who only see each other every four months at our parties, people who had never met before. We talked about backing up log trucks. My parents told embarrassing stories about me. There were board games a-plenty. The conversation ended on a particularly liberal arts note with an animated discourse on the nature of evil and whether virtue can be taught.
It was a little unfair of the universe to make this the daylight savings weekend, though. Of all the mornings to lose an hour of sleep before church, this was a rough one.
There are few things I feel as fortunate in as in the people who populate my life. I feel like I’m surrounded by a richness of amazing folks. The people in my life are funny, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, caring, RSVP consistently to parties, and are phenomenal cooks. (They also have passionate and divergent ideas about Oxford commas, which made me edit that sentence no fewer than 4 times.) In the still of the night after the last merry-maker has gone home, I often fall asleep feeling like I’ve won the lottery in the greatest wealth of all – friendship.
To all who celebrated with me this weekend – thank you. To all who could not be there – you were missed. To all who wished they could be there – I wish so too. May you all find as much joy and merriment in your lives as a sequence of made-up holidays supported by enthusiastic friends has brought to mine.
Valediction to a Cutting Board
by Adam Flynn
A cutting board, alone it sat
Abandoned on my cold, cold porch.
A brown cenotaph, long and flat
Lurking yet with quiet reproach.
Oh why then was it not retrieved?
What weighty judgement was laid o’er
That gave no option for reprieve
And left it lying by my door?
Or worse, a more ignoble fate –
Was Lethe’s cup instead to blame?
Did feast, and drink, and hours late
Rob sweet Mnemosyne of her name?
So may your heart of stone be moved
And claim this prize if yours it be.
For certainly it may be proved,
It really don’t belong to me!
This is the 18th time I’ve prepared to host my friends for the Mocksgiving meal. I’m perilously close to having had as many years of life with Mocksgiving as without it. Adam and I were married in August of 2000, and moved into a cute little apartment in Roslindale, which I saw for the first time in the 5 hour layover between returning from our wedding in Washington and leaving for our honeymoon in Greece. I worked from home that first year of married life, and I got really bored. Bored enough, it turns out, to try to learn how to cook. Adam’s family had lately been going to restaurants for Thanksgiving. I decided to give them the treat of a “real homecooked meal” instead… just as soon as I learned how to cook.
I was young, but I was no fool. So two weeks before Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a trial run. So I did a “mock” Thanksgiving. But I knew that two people couldn’t eat a turkey (not and repeat the performance a scant few weeks later!) so I invited some of our best friends (and all of our wedding party). That year 13 of us sat around a table and shared a meal and it was FANTASTIC. Also, that year, it just didn’t work out with the inlaws and Thanksgiving. We had such a good time that I repeated the performance the next year. And the next. The Mocksgiving that was most likely to not happen was the one that happened a scant two and a half weeks after Thane was born. But that one happened too, although I barely remember it.
Just as a caveat, I always feel somewhat self-conscious about Mocksgiving. We have long since hit the physical limit of how many people it’s possible to invite. I can say with relative confidence that no more than 30 adults can be seated simultaneously. Even though my circle of friends and welcome faces has continued to grow, my dining room as not. So I cannot invite many people I would wish to invite. If you’re feeling a little wistful about not being able to come, I likely feel a little wistful about not being able to invite you. Please don’t use this as a litmus test of friendship!
Anyway, one of the things about this particular day in my year is that I always spend it talking to you in my head. I’m not sure why. I think there’s something about the continuity. On this day I practice skills and revive recipes that go back in time. My bread recipe, for example, is a simple one. But my mother used to make it as both a therapy for her aching carpal tunnel hands, and as our primary source of bread. My grandmother made it, and served it in neat slices at lunch. My great grandmother, sharp blue eyes and wry smile, made it before her. I can see generations of capable hands making the same mysterious, practiced gestures. As my hands gnarl out of their childish softness, long having left maiden behind and well into matron (on my way to crone), I see the hands of my maternal line. And these recipes are really throwbacks. Adam’s bread, which he makes year round and which is our “normal” bread, is a healthy, whole-wheat, no-knead recipe he’s improved over years. My bread bears all the hallmarks of the fifties – white flour, butter (or margarine, as the recipe calls for) and the Crisco which lays unused in every other recipe but my high holy day recipes.
So, with no further ado, here are the notes I’ve saved for you so far. I’ll likely continue to add as breaks in cooking allow!
There’s pretty much never school on my prep day, due to Veteran’s Day. Mocksgiving and Veteran’s day almost always line up. I probably could do this with them home. It actually would probably be great if I taught them in this long line of heritage. But man, that sounds exhausting. I find it very relaxing and centering to just do this one thing – readying everything – on Mocksgiving day. This year I found out a few days too late that their regular afterschool and vacation program, the Boys and Girls Club, actually had an offering. Oh well, enjoy your LARP lads!
One of the great quests of Mocksgiving is the procurement of the turkey. It falls *right around* the time that stores start getting their fresh turkeys, or rather usually a day or two before. That’s what makes it exciting. I’ve noticed even the fresh turkeys tend to be rather frozenish for Mocksgiving. I went to Wegman’s first (figuring that any place that has an open bin of oyster mushrooms would have, you know, turkey). I was wrong, so then I went to Stop and Shop which had just gotten their shipment. I selected the largest turkey I could find, clocking in at 24 pounds. I once got an artesenal farm-raised, locally grown and ethically sourced turkey. It was terrible. It turns out that places like Butterball inject brine into the birds. I’m here to tell you that’s what makes them DELICIOUS. So I cheerfully buy Butterball turkeys and they always turn out amazing. Unfortunately this year, the Butterballs were all still frozen, so I went with an organic turkey that was marked as fresh. (Although is still rather suspiciously rock-like.) I trust that brine is organic, and I won’t miss out on any deliciousness due to upgrading.
My first task of tomorrow morning is almost always chiseling out the gizzards & neck of the frozen bird, while swearing that next year I’m going to find a turkey that is ACTUALLY not frozen, not one that just claims to not be frozen.
Aprons are most critical when you’re doing stuff that involves a lot of flour. Both making the bread and rolling out pies have this unfortunate tendency to enflour your midriff if you don’t wear an apron. So I wear an apron. I also have learned to seriously sequester my hair while baking.
The first step of my ancestral bread recipe is to make sure the yeast is alive. You add the sugar, salt, hot water and yeast and then go clean up the kitchen a bit. If you see this bubbling, your yeast is fine. If you don’t, you might as well stop now or you’ll get unleavened bread. This yeast was particularly vibrant.
I actually really don’t like my KitchenAid mixer, which I know makes me weird. I miss my Sunbeam mixer, but I got one of the “after bankruptcy” models that was poorly manufactured. I find it hard to add ingredients with the KitchenAid, and I can never mix in enough flour. I have to finish off getting the flour in by hand on the kneading table. The dough is warm, and moves like a slow lava-flow. I think the kneading is one of the spots where you need to know what it “should” be like, and where practice makes a big difference. I added almost 3 cups of flour more than the recipe called for to get the bread to the right consistency.
The bread goes through three rises. It doubles in the bowl twice, and then it rises in the loaf pans. While the bread is rising, I clean up the kitchen and get started on the pie starter. I should’ve made it last night, but I was lazy.
Once upon a time, I had a perfect pie starter made out of Crisco. Then Crisco took the trans fats out of their shortening. I’ve been complaining about this for like 5 years, and I may complain about it for the rest of my life. Anyway, they’ve improved the recipe, but I still find that the all Crisco recipe doesn’t taste as good as it used to. I really like working with a lard crust. It’s super forgiving. But it’s not vegetarian (which many of my guests are), and the taste also isn’t perfect. The mixed butter-Crisco crust is pretty hard to work (I use a vodka-water mix to help compensate), but has the best taste/flakiness quotient.
It’s possible I have strong pie crust opinions. By my reckoning, I’ve made about 200 pies in my life.
I still hate cutting in shortening. I often make Adam do this, but he’s working and I didn’t delegate early enough. The crumb on this isn’t quite small enough (eg the shortening bits should be smaller), but I’m a little lazy and this is good enough for me to work with. Its in the freezer now, getting super cold so I can work it.
As I mentioned, my yeast this time was super active. I think it cut nearly an hour off the regular rise time on the bread. (I’ve also learned on particularly cold days – like today – to prewarm my ceramic bowl by filling it with hot water.) This is the second rise on my dough.
My mom does a set of loaf-shaping activities I’ve never quite mastered. I suspect that if you plan on entering your bread in the State Fair they’re an important step. But so far no one at Mocksgiving has complained. I really like forming the loaves – you get to slap the bread with a satisfying “thwack!” that brings me back to being a little girl. I suspect there’s about a half cup of Crisco that ends up in the recipe, from how much I slather my hands with to make the forming possible.
Here’s another task I should’ve done last night – the lone crust for my favorite pie, lemon meringue. Fun fact: I can’t spell meringue. I’m now at the point in the day where I’m watching the clock about when I need to pick up the kids. I still have three pies + the most difficult pie filling to go before I can rest. Maybe four. I saved some rhubarb this summer and I’m pondering whether I can make a pie of it. (I always think about the “extra pie”. I never make the “extra pie”.)
All the pie crust recipes I use are high-shortening and hard to work. There’s a few things I keep in mind: all ingredients must be COLD. Handle the dough as little as possible (an opposite from the lovingly worked bread dough). But I don’t know how you’d be able to get the crust in the pan if you used a board instead of a cloth. I fold it with the cloth. Sometimes with a particularly difficult roll, I’ll even drag it over on the cloth. Then I can gently unfold it. I still end up having to reroll after this step half the time.
I usually make lemon meringue, blueberry from farmshare blueberries set aside over the summer, peach ditto, and two pecan pies (which are SO EASY compared to all the rest). I didn’t make peach pie this year because, um, I’m lazy. I was really busy when the peaches were in season. It’s a pity because peach pie is my favorite. My mom can make the dough actually round when she rolls it out. I can’t. Also, my edge-crinkling skills have improved, but they’re not up to her standards.
This pie crust gives me fits every year. It always schlumps on me, regardless of crust recipe. I’ve tried different pie pans. My mom pricks the bottom like three times. As you can see, no inch goes unpricked. There’s actually specific gadgets you can get for this, although I’ve never tried it. So I take that as validation my schlumping issue isn’t incompetence. This year it came out ok. My mom’s looks way better. It’ll taste great with lemon meringue in it though!
Meanwhile, the bread’s out of the oven just in time to put the crust in.
I like how the bread and the wood of the porch are the same color. I keep all my baking on the porch because my cats are jerks. Ask me about the year that some feline stepped right in the middle of my pie and I had to eat it all by myself. Tragic. The lone crust goes in right after the bread comes out.
It’s amazing how interrupting it is picking up the boys. An hour gone, with nothing in the oven! Dark is falling, and I’m not nearly done! I came back and got started on the two pecan pies. The kitchen is a major disaster area – once I get the blueberry prepped I’ll need to clean it again. Then the last pie of the day is my lemon meringue. I should probably make that before I clean up, but I’ll need the mixer bowl cleaned.
I’m pretty sure there’s other stuff I should be doing too, but I’m momentarily forgetting it.
I should really make just over 3 pecan pies in Pi plates for perfect geekery. I tried to trace a pie in pecans on one of them, but I think you’d have to be staring pretty hard to make it out.
I’m starting to flag, energy wise. Now’s the hard part.
5:30 pm –
It occurs to me I should’ve been time stamping this all along. Sorry.
I’m in the home stretch now. The blueberry pie is in the oven. The pecan pies are cooling. I still need to make the lemon meringue filler before I collapse, but that’s not so bad. It could also THEORETICALLY happen tomorrow, but that’s not a good idea. I also made a sad discovery with regard to one of my favorite pie plates. It was a gift from a friend, oh, ten years ago. It’s my “go to” for blueberry pies. Lately it’s been a little porous and leaky. But it has now developed a fatal crack. Farewell favorite pie plate. Sniff sniff.
On the plus side, the pecan pies are looking excellent.
8:51 pm –
It’s done. The last pie has come out of the oven. The meringue came out very nicely this time! I could eat that filling by the spoonful. I’m a little nervous about putting on the porch. The temperature out there is currently 34 degrees, and I don’t think the meringue should freeze. There’s no room in the fridge (I moved the turkey from the front porch to the fridge, because the front porch was too cold to help thaw it). So that leaves the oven. (It doesn’t need to be chilled.) But the real question is … will I remember to remove the pie before I preheat the oven for the turkey?
Tomorrow morning – turkey, stuffing, potatoes & butternut squash! And table settings, cleaning house, and other preparing.
There are some fragments of culture that are tiny – perhaps shared only across a few people. My family, like many families, has a culture fragment. It’s a book – a barely known domestic novel written in the eve of WWII by R.L. Stevenson’s first-cousin-once-removed, D.E. Stevenson about a woman who wrote novels. It’s called Miss Buncle’s Book and everyone in my family of birth has read it – multiple times. We used to hunt for copies of it (it was out of print) every time we went up to Canada, and finally over years we each got a copy. Mine is a fourth edition, and has an inscription on the front cover: “Mrs. F.B. Pemberton, from Laura, Jan 1937”. That same lady had a bookplate with the family motto on the other side, “Virtutate et Labore”, with a boar’s head.
Old books are awesome. I digress.
In Miss Buncle’s Book, she accuses her neighbor of using pectin to get her damson jam to set. (This is, apparently, a crime. Here in the 21st century, before it became a hipster past-time, making jam at all was so ridiculously archaic that making it without pectin sounds ridiculous!) I’ve read this book probably 20 times, and this sentence always stuck out to me. And when I started getting more serious in the jam making and farmer’s market attending, I began asking the farmers if they had any damson plums. Plum jams are some of my favorite jams, and a bit of research had revealed that damsons are, in fact, a favorite plum for preserving.
But across all the farm shares, the farmer’s markets and the produce stands … no one had damson plums. No one had even heard of them. I badgered my farmer (Farmer Dave) to plant some for me. He politely declined.
Finally, in 2012, I bought a fruiting sized tree for my tiny back yard, bound and determined to get my damson plums one way or another. I started thinking of recipes I could use the plums for. I’d make some prunes for pork and prune stew. Maybe a plum pudding? Plum wine? Of course, I’d make 3 or 4 batches of jam with all the plums. Perhaps I’d give the rest to neighbors, or finally teach my family to enjoy the fruit right off the tree. I know one tree an produce quite a volume of fruit, and my recipes were ready.
But that year came and went with nary a plum. And the next year. And the next year. I pruned. I watered. I didn’t water in order to stress it out. I didn’t prune. I watched in horror as winter moth caterpillers denuded my tree and every tree in the vicinity. Two years there were five blossoms – the first time I could finally figure out exactly when the tree was supposed to flower. Last year, every stone fruit in all New England was devastated by a late, hard freeze. I’ve watched it with a keen, worried eye as I saw the buds swelling this year, praying hard that no late chill would shrivel the blooms off my tree. I wondered if I could justify a smudge pot for my tiny, one-tree orchard. I actually tried to cover it in a tarp for the last really cold snap. (News flash: it’s too big.)
I’ve joked that I’ll never get a plum off my tree. We plan on owning this house for another 20 years, and I’ve sometimes had a horrible feeling I’ll go all 20 of those years damsonless – the tree growing and thriving and somehow falling down on it’s ONE DUTY of providing me with enough plums to make a batch of jam. Just one! Just once!
It’s Easter weekend. It’s the time when we have hope that things which look hopeless and beyond saving actually are not. And this year, for the first time ever, my plum tree is prolifically blooming. There are pollinators of all sorts whirling in a buzzing cloud around it. Green leaves and white blossoms blaze against a blue sky. We still need to get through the winter moth caterpillars, the summer and the harvest season. I have many steps to go between these virginal blossoms and the effulgent plums whose harvest is my great desire.
But there is hope. And I will probably use pectin.
PS – My name comes from another D.E. Stevenson book, “Crooked Adam”!
PPS – In looking up links for this article, I found this not-reassuring poem:
“He who plants plums
Plants for his sons.
He who plants damsons
Plants for his grandsons.”
PPPS – The site I bought it from just says it’s a “Blue Damson”. I hope that means it’s really a:
‘Shropshire Prune’ (syn. ‘Prune Damson’, ‘Long Damson’, ‘Damascene’, ‘Westmoreland Damson’, ‘Cheshire Damson’) is a very old variety; its blue-purple, ovoid fruit has a distinctively “full rich astringent” flavour considered superior to other damsons, and it was thought particularly suitable for canning. Hogg states that this was the variety that became specifically associated with the old name “damascene”. The local types often known as the “Westmoreland Damson” and “Cheshire Damson” are described as synonymous with the Shropshire Prune by the horticulturalist Harold Taylor and others. The Shropshire was also the best-known variety of damson in the United States.
My most genius Christmas request ever was the time I asked Adam for sourdough starter for Christmas. He got the starter, read all the materials for getting it started, and stealthily started it in the fridge. He presented it to me on Christmas morning, as it was nearing time for use. I expressed my excitement and gratitude! But it needed to get used, and I showed no sign of getting up to make bread… so Adam made some sourdough bread. He kept feeding the sourdough and making delicious baked goods, periodically reminding me that hey! This was ready whenever I was! I kept nodding and saying I was thinking of doing something with it tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.
Basically, I got months of delicious sourdough baking with zero effort, before he figured me out. It was brilliant.
This year for Christmas, I asked for a beer brewing kit. The yeast arts are amazing ones to me. The similarities between bread and beer are striking. They’re the staffs upon which civilization was founded. And hey! Adam has a degree is biochemistry, so this is gonna work out great, right?
Over Christmas, I brewed the first kit. It was a teeny one gallon kit, perfect for a trial run. I read through the book. I watched a Youtube how to video. I cleaned the kitchen and read through all the various steps multiple times, lining up my tools like a surgeon.
Over and over again, all the materials stress the dire need for excellent dishes doing. Everything has to be super clean. Very sterile. Completely squeaky clean. I assiduously did the dishes and contemplated how fun a hobby must be in order to be worth doing this many dishes for. I wrestled with the auto-siphon and stared at my destroyed kitchen and thought “This beer better taste good.” Six bottles were all that labor produced. I doled them out to my friends.
“Not bad! I hardly any of that banana taste homebrew usually has. This is actually drinkable!”
Hours of labor. Massive dishes. Incredible expense. All to create something I could buy a better version of for a fraction of the cost. Worst yet, Adam was on to me and wasn’t using his clean room technique to do all the work for me. Curses! Foiled again!
Still, I had gotten a second kit – a five gallon one. A neighbor gave me their gear (missing one or two bobs and bits). It included this neato cooling kit that you hook up to your faucet, except we didn’t have that connector. Adam spent about 2 hours going to many hardware stores, coming home with about 7 connectors. None of them worked. D’oh!
As I brewed the gigantic pot of mash, I thought of my alewife ancestors. If brewing required this much cleanliness, how did they pull it off with pottery instead of stainless steel, creek water and dirty hands? Was ancient beer just really bad? Were there tricks I don’t know about? Did they have extra potent yeast? The mind boggled.
I managed to get the beer into the carboy without any major sanitation fails. It pretty much exploded in my closet. (I guess that yeast was really active?!) Then it was “add sugar and move to bottle” time. This apparently includes moving the beer from the carboy to a bucket with a hole in the bottom (at which step you add the sugar that creates carbonation) followed by putting it into the bottles from there.
I had elaborate schemes for moving everything, while keeping everything perfectly sanitary. But then the auto-siphon wasn’t long enough to reach all the way into the carboy and disasters occurred with the sterile environment. Worse yet, at one point the bung came out of the bottom of the bucket and the entire floor was awash in uncarbonated beer. There were many bad words spoken.
Finally, we got the beer into the bottles. It’s about a case an a half. If you take into account what my time is worth, each bottle has to cost about $20. I have no idea if it will even be drinkable.