Saturday, April 21, 2007

Raspberry Crisp

“Raz 97” scrawls in grease pencil across the lid of the jar. Which means it has been nearly ten summers since the day when these particular berries were mashed into a pulp and squeezed into this jar.

If you’re a moderately frugal person, you read up on the Consumer Reports list of how long food keeps, and you try to use it up before it passes the date, and if it doesn’t, you regretfully throw it out and recycle the container.

If you’re a true, deep, dyed-in-the-bone tightwad, you look it over carefully, and then you smell it cautiously, and then you put a tiny finger in and taste it, and if you don’t fall ill immediately you come up with a clever dish in which it can be artfully disguised. My mother, who studied just enough microbiology to approach aging leftovers with a scientific flair, taught me the art and science well.

The raspberries pass. We will have raspberry crisp for supper.

Ten years ago means I was eighteen, living at home, working part-time and studying law more for my own amusement than any impressive goals. Grandma would still be living in her little trailer next to the house, and Aunt Dee’s car would be parked outside while they played a game of Scrabble, the door propped open to catch the breeze.

Raspberries are the high summer fruit. Strawberries still taste of spring, and even the early apples hint of fall. Raspberries come when summer has settled in to stay, bold and warm as the July sun. The long grass would have been turning golden, and the pheasants would have been calling the lonely, haunting note that I thought, when I was very young, was the noise time made when it passed.

I wonder what inspired the canning of a quart jar of raspberries in the first place. Our raspberry harvest was seldom impressive. We had planted them in reclaimed pastureland, and the pasture did not give up so easily. If you wanted to pick berries while the day was still cool, you had to brave the slimy, yard-long grass to coax the berries off their stems. (Raspberries must always be coaxed, never yanked. If you have to yank, they’re not ripe yet.)

Usually the berries we did get we turned into freezer jam, or into Raspberry Lush, a concoction of almond cookie, cream cheese and whipped cream that left one with little more to hope for. A few might be made into canned jam, but canned raspberries lose their brilliance.

This jar barely hints at the gleaming red of ten summers ago. It offers up a lump of burgundy goo, only the seeds still identifiable. Raspberry seeds persist when all else gives way. It is sweet, very sweet. The crisp will need no extra sugar.

Who did can this jar? It came from my sister-in-law. She and my brother were practically newlyweds still, living in the most charming of little newlywed apartments. She was learning life on the farm and must have helped with some of the canning that year. Then again, grease pencil is not the most precise mechanism for revealing handwriting, but there’s something about the hasty scrawl that suggests my mother’s cooking. The men are hungry: get the food on, girls.

I am getting the food on today: roast, mashed potatoes, salad, vegetable, dessert. Alone in the kitchen, unless I have a toddler volunteering to wave the potatoes under the water, I tend to cook one-pot meals. But something about a Saturday makes me want to pull out all the stops. Really, it’s not so hard; it just makes a few more dishes.

Perhaps somebody found a good deal on a flat of overripe raspberries and there was already plenty of jam that year. Perhaps it was canned in a spasm of concern over Y2K or general societal chaos that might imperil the freezer. Anyway, these berries were mashed and canned and here they are.

A long way these berries have traveled to get here. They moved with my brother and his wife across the country; moved with my brother and his wife and three children halfway back, to where we were living in a newlywed apartment that was in no way adorable. Then they've moved with us three times. My brother moved back into a house in a bright new subdivision that took the place of the empty fields and overgrown trees next to the house. I left on a summer afternoon and I am still gone.

Somewhere I have a recipe for crisp topping, but I never look at it. The recipe is part of my instincts, like the right way to pick raspberries. I adapt it to what is handy and the quantity of berries. It turns out just right, which didn’t happen so often ten years ago. Perhaps in some way my mother and grandmother and great aunt, who have left their own kitchens behind, give me a little nudge now and again to help me get it right.

I was not so wrong, when I was a little girl, to think the pheasant’s cry was the sound of passing time. Every sound is the sound of passing time. Everything is always being lost to us forever. Tonight we will have the distilled essence of ten summers for supper. My toddlers will smear it on their faces and pajamas, and then they will go to bed.


Marie said...

I've been reading your blog for sometime, but have never commented. This was too beautiful to miss--thank you for sharing.

God bless you and yours.

Rose said...

What a piece of worksmanship this post is! It has that tender, bittersweet, nostalgic quality that should win it prizes in the short stories contests. Great job.

On the content front, how fascinating! I'm sure my parents' pantry boasts a few cans that are a decade old or more. I never got into the canning world (on my own, I mean; of course I helped out when growing up) and we pretty much ate up the yummy things (green beans, corn, salsa, jam, etc.) every year and avoided the not-so-tempting things (don't even bother trying to can leftover chicken) so the stuff that got eaten every year was fresh and the stuff that still isn't eaten probably never will be.

We tried canning blackberries, and they did mush up a bit, but were still worthwhile for making future jams or smoothies or crisps.

I really must learn how to can on my own lest the world come to a screeching halt and my stockpile of frozen goods leaves me stranded.

the Joneses said...

This post captures some of the mystique of Time that's always tugging at me. To look at a jar of raspberries and think about what life was like when it was new, and ache over bits of life that are now memories and nothing else... You've articulated what I often feel myself. Thanks.

And Rose is right -- keep this one on hand for when you're looking for a good essay.

-- SJ

Uncle Steve said...

You need a different label for this one. It's not rambling -- it's poetry.