06 July 2011

Jammy Memories

My friend Maggie makes jam. I haven't bought any yet, but it sounds awesome. Today she posted on Facebook that she was making Santa Rosa Plum Jam.

A flood of memories washed over me. When I was six years old, my family moved to Napa. The backyard was huge, 2/3 of an acre, and all uphill. Landscaping it was a real challenge for my parents, but they were up for it. They devoted a lot of time and care to that yard, making sure to plant things that would grip the hill and halt mudslides, things that weren't needy when it came to watering, things that were useful as well as beautiful. It seemed like we had miles and miles of rosemary and lavender. The pussy-willow grew bigger than any pussy-willow anybody had ever seen--I think it was ten feet tall. There were already a few cherry-plum trees growing wild, maybe leftover from some forgotten orchard, which they worked around. In the flat bit in the middle of the hill they also planted new fruit trees; an apple which didn't thrive and never really bore edible fruit, an apricot in which I once found my cat munching on the fruit, and a plum. A Santa Rosa plum. Dad was insistent that it be no other variety. His parents had a Santa Rosa plum in their yard, and he had fond memories of jam-making with his mother or just eating them right off the tree. So, a Santa Rosa plum was duly procured and planted. It thrived.

We started making jam a few years later, because otherwise the fruit just ended up squished into the bark below the tree. We only made two kinds of jam, or variations. Apricot and plum. Sometimes we mixed them. One year the apricot jam came out kind of runny, but it turned out to be the perfect topping for grilled pork tenderloin, and an awesome salad dressing additive, so it didn't matter. We were actually sorry that we could never replicate that consistency. With the plum jam, we sometimes mixed in cherry-plums from the semi-wild trees. Sometimes we mixed in strawberries, either from our own little strawberry patch or ones my grandfather brought with him, leftover from his jam-making.

I only remember my maternal grandfather making strawberry jam. As far as I know he never made any other kind, and he did it by himself--my grandmother did not participate.

In our house, though, jam-making was a whole-family experience. Mom and Dad and I all crowded into the kitchen and heated the jars and lids, separating the skins and pits from the cooked fruit, measuring the sugar, stirring the pot. Every window and both back doors would be open, the scent of blooming jasmine mixing with hot fruit. The bewildered dog and cats got underfoot, and I risked burned fingers to scrape a little of the thickening mixture out of the emptied pot and taste the red sweetness of the Santa Rosa plum jam. I always had to wear old clothes for this process, because I invariably came out sticky and stained at the end. Some things never change; I still have to wear an apron when I cook.

Maggie lived about a block away from us, and probably didn't know or care until I mentioned it on her fb today that we used to make jam from our own plum tree so close by. I think the only cooking she ever saw at our house was on a singular occasion when my dad baked cookies with her little sister (a memory for another day). But the mention of her Santa Rosa plum jam brings happy, homey memories of the "old days" in Napa.