What grows well here in Vermont? A family of fruit called Ribes, plus aronia (Aronia melanocarpa), sea buckthorn, elderberries, apples of course, but my mother started planting fruit in the gardens around the house with a focus on the Ribes genus, which includes currants (red, white, pink and black) and gooseberries as well some gooseberry-currant crosses like Jostaberry.Read More
One of my side jobs, one that is especially financially important during the cash doldrums of January through March, is working as an event server at Middlebury College where during the month of February they welcome a small class of first year students, "febs". Space has been freed by other students gone overseas for study abroad and suddenly a new group of students needs orientation, which means a week of special events requiring a server.
At this time of year, I'm grasping for any sense of newness, growth, or small glory. People come into Tandem on Friday mornings saying they have just come in from skiing or are picking up snacks as they head off to the mountain for a day in the snow; sounds glorious and GOOD, but THAT IS NOT ME. I'm inside ordering strawberry plants, lounging in the early morning hours warmed by a space heater in my bedroom where the only sounds are a small piece of black locust falling onto the roof and Fourtet's New Energy album on repeat. And citrus, that's another winter delight, scoring the rind of a bitter orange with my thumbnail and bringing the fruit to my nose. Or even more mundane, being the one who is home when the mail comes. I sort the envelopes and magazines as I walk back to the house, making the big decisions on which mail order catalogs to dump straight into recycling. Oh, and this time of year of year, there are a few more chances to sync calendars and build a dinner with five friends that lights up a 6 pm sunset.
Amy and I manage a walk sometimes in the afternoon during the months of January - June. Then all hell breaks loose, just about the same time the very first Prelude raspberries ripen. Suddenly there is no time for us, only time for fruit and sleep. But when we walk we walk at different paces. I walk fast, hoping to raise my heartbeat and Amy moves at a pace that allows her to study animal prints in the snow or pull berries off the juniper tree. I circle back. We make a game of it as I run ahead and run back to her and then back down into the field's fold to take a picture.
Winter means getting away. The dream is to one day financially reach the point where we can be away mid February through mid March. The idea would be to finish the preservation cycle during this week in February with marmalades made from Bergamot and Seville Oranges, which arrive to here around the last week of January. We would come back in time to prep for the growing season. Amy and I both have strong familial and emotional connections to the West coast. Amy grew up in Montana but found her community in Seattle. I got my first taste of adulthood--and its education--while living in Los Angeles. I found my professional focus when I met Amy in the Northwest. Home in its gnarly heart(iness) is here in Vermont, but maintaining a connection to the west feels vital for making life back East work. Last year we spent several weeks visiting friends in Seattle, but this year only I went out west, spending several days in San Francisco as part of participating in the Good Food Mercantile. I got to brush up against the barest of a visual recharge, seeing ultraviolet bougainvillea against the matte city sky, remembering how I used to feel lonely among the southwest architecture of stucco houses, but gradually shed my New England training for wood siding and Cape Cod houses until I even loved the summer, no-rain-grime caught in the hummocks of the stucco crags. A couple mornings later, I slept in a room with no shades allowing the lazy-to-an-east-coaster-sunrise to do its full work on my body. I feel like I can really talk to that side of the sun. Take your time. I'm going to snooze until you make the room so hot I have to get up and get a glass of water.
Visiting my friend Kim has evolved in a yearly ritual. This visit and the chance moments where friends from another space and time suddenly are in my space and time--like seeing Hope from college during an afternoon in Pescadero or catching Jason for two days after another 6 year increment--this is one of my favorite parts of aging; you never know what or who will stick with you. It makes the already lived past and the future more exciting.
February, you are good too.
I am home more at this time of year than at any time and there is no other reason to be back here in Vermont than the chance to be on this land, thinking/working about what do with it that honors (slowly re plant the orchard, but cook with the apples that are left from my father's efforts) and departs (don't worry about planting in straight rows) from what has been, but most important? this chance to be with my mother as we live separately, but side by side in this house.
I've started waking close to 5, just after Amy finishes grinding the coffee and the kettle has reached temp. I take the stairs into the kitchen slowly, using the hand rail more than I usually do. I'm useless to start. Maybe I wash out my mug from yesterday or I hug Amy from behind as she pours water onto the ground beans, circling the stream of water around the expressive volcano of freshly ground coffee blooming in a white paper basket. It's intensely cold downstairs and fresh out of bed, I'm a nurse log of warmth for Amy who's lost the residual heat of the blankets after her trip outside to warm the car. Today, I'm working on a quiche recipe for this week's Friday Mornings at Tandem, the regular pop up I'm doing with my friend Brooke at the production kitchen for V Smiley Preserves. While I decide which orange in our refrigerator's fruit and nut box--Cara Cara, Clementine or Minneola--to eat, Amy asks if she needs to pick up eggs after her workday. The truck broke down last week so one car (and whoever is driving it) is in charge of the day's errands.
Amy leaves the house and half a teapot of coffee on the cutting board at about 5:30 and drives north to Winooski for work. She'll return later in the morning with a dozen eggs and a desire for an early afternoon nap dozed into from the program breaks on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. "Talk about about the present state of troop levels in Afghanistan...tell us about, talk about".
Meanwhile, I've re-climbed the stairs and propped up the pillows in my bed so that I can sit up and type on this keyboard. I order coffee beans for Friday morning and message a friend (who's doing me favor by letting me send milk deliveries to their kitchen) to expect dairy this afternoon and I'll be by later to pick up the cream. Later on today, I'll start a gallon of yogurt so that it's ready in time Friday's pop up. But mostly this morning, my goal is to make some decisions about fruit trees. I've been polling the local growers like Omar and Nathan on their favorite mail order nurseries. I know that later on this year, fruit trees at the local nursery (where I work) will go on clearance and I'll be able to haul home a few more thick stemmed and well branched fruit trees, but the selection will be limited.
I love plums and their elegance as a preserve, the luxurious texture of their flesh and skin fattened with honey and lemon. The elegance lies in their simplicity where flavors range wildly across variety, across place, across grower; the same variety grown in the same soil type but cared for by two different orchardists can yield two very different fruits. This part is not ideal. Part of the problem is that the market locally for plums is uncertain. Everyone wants peaches. A good peach season in Vermont can mean a farmer does get to go on vacation in February. But who wants plums? Here in the northeast, stone tree fruit (cherries, plums, peaches, etc) is so precious and precarious (will the blossoms open on a warm day that's followed by a frost that night, will it be pouring spring rain and the bees don't come out to pollinate or will a freak hail storm in July pummel the skin, or will the first killing frost hold out until the last week of September allowing the late European varieties to yield) that as a collective customer, we'll sort of take anything. Tiny plums with no flavor? amazing, I'll take a 100 lbs. Peaches with more pit than flesh, a miracle, I'll take 8 boxes! Scarcity makes it tough to read a market. Is an orchardist selling out of plums because they grow great plums or simply because they have plums and no else does?
V Smiley Preserves' line of flavors relies heavily upon plums. They do all kinds of work in the preserves. They can be a stand alone, showstopping fruit. The Damson plum is the ultimate example. Then plums serve as a backdrop to other stars like blackcurrants or strawberries, fruit that can be pricey either because it's difficult to pick or process or in the case of late season strawberries, precious (as compared to the glut of June bearing berries) and therefore expensive. And I like the staining quality of red and purple plums. The light colored preserves are beautiful (Peach Tomato or Apricot Jam) but they stress me out. Honey and my low sweetening approach to preserving means color in the jar can change quickly, especially if the jars are stored in sunlight on a shop shelf. But purple and red preserves stay beautiful.
In 3 or so years, the plum situation here in Addison County should start to improve and steady out. Even in just our county, the same spring season can put the squeeze on one tree fruit farmer and leave another with loaded trees so I figure if Amy and I plant some trees in the right place, Omar has his, Nathan has his and the bigger orchards continue on, between all of us and however we come through the spring and summer, there will be more plums, maybe even enough plums.
Hello from too long ago. Very shortly I will be posting the holiday schedule for V Smiley Preserves. Stay tuned for that. Regarding schedule, the biggest change is VSP will be at the Burlington Winter Farmers Market, which is SO IMPORTANT as it gives me a consistent direct market through the slow and quiet season, which in Vermont (when the winter visitors head up the mountains to the ski slopes) is even slower and quieter. It's a time of year that can terrify even the most planned and organized pocket book. Last winter was exceedingly challenging as my partner went through a long period of unemployment and at VSP I was launching a new product line with new packaging/branding AND moving kitchens to a much lovelier, positive, and more costly space. It was a hedging choice of hope that business for VSP would pick up, that we would find our feet, that there was a financial way forward in this very different-than-Seattle-the-place-I-started-the-business rural environment of Vermont, which is DIY to its core. Who, who, who out there needs some jam? At the moment, I’m spending a lot of head space on how much to push VSP during the holidays. I have the opportunity to be in 3 venues concurrently during the important shopping weekends that lead up to the Holidays. Can I afford to stretch myself and VSP this much / Can I afford not to try? I have to sort this out in the next week.
Meanwhile I’m basking in those tender hours between 8 and 11 am, a stretch of time I haven’t enjoyed at home or in my office, for months. Starting in April I worked 2-4 jobs a week on top of VSP production and selling. Probably, most relevant and exciting to the farm project here at home, I worked at a nursery, which made me crazy for gardening and wanting 1 of everything on the nursery benches. I developed a bad habit of bringing home plants, leaving them in the front yard and pointing Amy to them, “heeeey, can I interest you in planting those in the ground?” Earlier this month, 3 new redcurrants joined the currant forces that surround my mom’s house. It’s a force that leans in the blackcurrant direction, so this will up the redcurrant count to 7. Just 35 more to go.
October, at about its midpoint, is when the seasonal saturation of plant growth/sunlight/tourists/travelers/harvest/leaf turning/commerce/commerce/run/run/plant/share/repeat// almost abruptly unsqueezes and suddenly all of us seasonally-driven people/businesses are released. And where are we? IN A MONUMENTAL PLACE of some free time. And one more hot day. Another one is being doled out today with a promise of mid 70s on this leeward side of October. The box elder bugs on the south side of our house will be happy. One more day of sweet heat. I like summer most—though I’d like to skip the snake agreeing with me by way of daily afternoon snooze sessions on my front step—but I can respect what’s happening now. Especially when it gives fall raspberries with quince and these Albion Strawberries don’t stop trying.
-build 5 batches of Elderberry Plum Jam
-distribute strawberries into Strawberry Plum Jam and Strawberry Grapefruit Jam
-put 6 oz jars downstairs
-count/pack yesterday’s production
-go eat dinner at ArtsRiot with Amy’s dad
3 pounds + 3 ounces Seville* oranges cut evenly into 8 pieces
1 pound + 8 ounces Navel oranges sliced to a thin-medium thickness (instructions below)
4 pounds 8 ounces honey**
4 (liquid) ounces fresh squeezed lemon juice
10 ounces Dates, finely chopped
1 cup coffee beans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or half a vanilla bean
* Seville Oranges are sometimes sold as Marmalade Oranges. Ask your local store’s produce department or get some online from The Florida Orange Shop or Ripetoyou.com.
**I often use blackberry/blueberry honey. If possible, pick a honey that’s light colored, sweet/fruity tasting, a honey where the taste of wax and comb are less forward. A fruity/sweet honey allows the fruit being preserved to shine through in the finished preserves. A light colored honey, and (depending on the flower varietal since some flowers produce inherently darker honey) a raw honey, can help keep the color lighter in your finished preserve. But don’t overthink this either. If only Clover Honey is available, use it!
There are 5 working elements to this marmalade.
1) First there is the fruit that supplies the majority of “the juice”. That juice eventually becomes the jelly portion of the marmalade. In this case the fruit doing this work is Seville Orange. The juice is made by cooking fruit in water and the water captures all the flavor and pectin from the fruit. Down the road that available pectin sets the jelly portion of the marmalade.
2) The fruit that supplies the textural element to the marmalade also known as “the shred”. In this case, Navel Oranges are the shred in the marmalade. Because the shred is cooked in water to make it soft and pleasant for eating, the water contains pectin and fruit flavor from the oranges making it a more minor contributor to our marmalade’s juice portion.
3) The honey in this recipe, like in all V Smiley Preserves, serves as the thickener (sugar, and honey to a lesser degree than sugar, attracts water to it, which frees up pectin to form a continuous network and that network begets the preserves’ “set”). And the honey works as a preservative (occupying water molecules which if left to their own devices invite spoilage) in the preserve.
4) The lemon juice performs two jobs. Most importantly it provides balance of flavor in the finished product. Lemon juice brightens flavor. Second, lemon juice helps pectin work more effectively. The explanation for exactly how lemon juice assists pectin involves positive and negative charges of pectin when water is involved. I’ll explain that detail in a later post about the mysterious, wandering and reactive character called Pectin.
5) Last, I’ve elected to use a mixture of aromatics and additions that are in truth non-essential to producing a flavor-balanced and texturally-correct preserve, but they’re fun to work with! Aromatics and additions like the dates in this marmalade lend playfulness, whimsy, and a curiosity about flavor to the finished product. How do dates effect the taste of Seville Orange and when we eat this marmalade; at what point do we taste the coffee bean flavor? I started making Seville Orange Coffee Date Marmalade because I wanted the incredible Seville orange to be more approachable. Sevilles are super flavorful, but very bitter and that bitterness has a limited audience. So while this marmalade isn’t exactly super sweet, it brings together a collection of comforting and familiar flavor profiles, dates, coffee and vanilla. Knowing that those pieces of citrus rind have a huge, sometimes jarring impact on people’s experience of flavor I chose to use a less bitter citrus for the shred with the hope of again, keeping this marmalade more approachable.
Start preparing the Seville Orange juice. Cut each orange into 8 even pieces and place your prepped oranges in a non-reactive cooking pot that’s large enough to keep the orange pieces in almost a single layer. Cover the pieces with water to one inch above the fruit line. Before I start filling my pot with water, I mark that place one inch above the fruit with my finger. I do this because the fruit floats and rises with the water and it’s easy to add more water than you need. I fill the pot with water until liquid reaches that finger marker. Cover the fruit and water and leave at room temperature overnight.
Move the Seville Orange pieces and water to the stove, bringing the covered pot up to a boil on a high heat. Once the liquid has reached a boil, turn the heat down. Find the spot on your stove’s dial that allows the covered pot of cooking fruit to maintain a gurgling simmer. Cook the Seville pieces for 2.5 to 3 hours. You can check on them every 30 minutes, pressing the fruit with a spoon, giving a brief stir and staying aware of how the liquid behaves on your spoon. It will thicken slightly over the 2.5 to 3 hours. Make sure the fruit stays submerged in water. When the Seville pieces are done cooking, place a non reactive (no aluminum!) metal mesh strainer (a pasta strainer can work too) over a non-reactive bowl and pour oranges and water through the strainer. You will leave the oranges to drip overnight so make sure there is plenty of space between the strainers bottom and the liquid collecting below. They should not touch. You might need to strain most of the mixture into one container, cover that container and then reset your strainer over another container. Cover straining fruit with plastic wrap and allow to drip for 12 hours.
While the Seville Orange pieces cook, slice the Navel Oranges. Working lengthwise (as though you were making orange wedges), cut oranges into quarters. Then, working widthwise, cut each quarter into thin slices. Your slices should look like tiny pie slices. Place sliced oranges in non-reactive cooking pot and cover with water to one inch above the fruit line. Bring to a boil, immediately lower heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook oranges for 35-45 minutes. Check on the Navel Orange pieces as they cook. Try biting into the slices to get a sense of how their texture is changing as they cook. When the slices give no resistance to your teeth, they are done. Pull the pot from the heat and let rest 12 hours.
Place several spoons on a plate in your freezer. All the marmalades’ ingredients will be mixed in one large bowl before being transferred into a jam pan. Chop the dates into small pieces and place them in your largest mixing bowl along with the vanilla bean that’s been split and scraped of its seeds (seeds and pod go in the bowl). Or if you are using vanilla extract, add it to the dates. Measure the coffee beans into large mesh tea balls or tie them in cheesecloth or muslin.
Next strain the Seville Orange juice through an extra fine non reactive sieve or several layers of cheesecloth. Add the strained orange juice to the large mixing bowl along with the honey, the Navel Orange pieces and their liquid, and the fresh squeezed/strained lemon juice. Gently stir and incorporate all the ingredients together. Pour the mixture into an 11-quart, non-reactive and wide preserving pan like an enameled Dutch oven or—if you have one—a copper jam pan. If you do not have a large pan, split the mixture in two and cook in your standard stock-pot in two rounds. Drop the satchel of coffee beans into the pot.
Over high heat, bring the pot to a boil. The mixture will cook at high heat until it sets. The spoons in the freezer will help determine whether the the marmalade is finished, but clues to the state of the “set” will show throughout the cooking process. Cooking times vary depending on the pan and your stove. The cooking mixture will proceed through several cooking stages. When it reaches the foaming stage start to run a heatproof spatula along the bottom of your pan. Don’t over-stir! This slows the cooking process. You are using your spatula to feel what’s happening on the bottom of the pot. Mainly you are making sure nothing is sticking and an assured running of your spatula along the bottom of the pan helps prevent sticking. When the marmalade starts to foam in the pan, this is the time to really pay attention to any sticking on the pan’s bottom. The marmalade will be in the high foam stage for a while before it actually sets, but notice how the bubbles of the foam get smaller and finally the whole mixture starts to look more like a mass that’s cohesive and has an element of airy puffiness to it.
Test for doneness by pulling the pot off the heat and placing a small bit of the mixture into one of your frozen spoons. Allow the spoon to cool in your freezer until the underside feels “room temperature”. Tilt the spoon. If the mixture has formed a skin and moves very sluggishly down the spoon then the marmalade is set and done. If the mixture runs down the spoon easily, return the pot to the stove and continue boiling. Remove the pot from the stove each time you check the set. Also, check the surface of the jam in the pot after it’s rested off the stove for several minutes. If you notice a skin has formed on the surface surface, this is another sign the marmalade has set.
Once you’ve determined whether the marmalade is finished let it sit for 2-4 minutes off the heat. This helps ensure that the Navel Orange pieces stay dispersed in the jar. Sometimes if you jar too fast all the slivers of citrus shoot to the top of the jar.
If you are canning the marmalade, follow the jar manufacturer’s instructions or if you want to eat your marmalade right away, simply extract the vanilla bean and coffee beans from the mixture and place in glass jars and let cool. Store marmalade in the refrigerator if you aren’t canning it. You can eat the marmalade immediately, but the flavors will shift and integrate over the following weeks. The finished flavor will come into its own about two weeks after cooking.
I had never been up here. It's the westward view of the Smiley farm. Squint and you can see our cement barn in the valley. The white bark sycamores hint at water, but mostly the New Haven River, which parallels the barn's eastward side, is obscured.
We came up here for a reason! A good portion of the farm's forest stands across the New Haven River. There's a cornfield across the river too, which receives yearly visits from wild turkeys feasting on leftover corn kernels. Several years back, some logging was done in the woods that edge the cornfield. Decks of hardwood logs were left to be hauled across the river later, but my mother has worried that the logs have deteriorated beyond the point of use. My mother, Amy and I went to check in on the quality of the logs today.
I love how snow makes movement more legible, from the deer, bear and rabbit tracks to the tire impressions of last summer's tractor work still imprinted onto the field.
But those decks of logs were not so decked. Rather, pairs of trees with root balls attached had been pulled to the side of the logging road and these pairs followed most of the length of the zig zagging road. But nothing as condensed and organized as a log deck, which dissapointed my mother but answered the question of whether we would be pulling firewood from across the river. Not worth it.
Mostly today was about having a lovely walk in the woods, woods that long ago were pastures. That barbed wire doesn't lie.
It's so easy for me to stay wrapped up on the computer or between the pages of some book rather than getting outside. Amy calls me an indoor kitty. What got me outside today on this walk with Amy and my mother was the idea of getting this alternative viewpoint on the farm. I wanted to see what the farmhouse looked like from across the river when I've spent so many breakfasts and dinners staring across the river to the cornfield and woods.
It is so good to be here. Tonight is a lazy night, a cap on a day for laziness. I'm slapping at mosquitoes while sitting outside. It's Monday, which with my schedule is more like a Saturday. It's a day to catch up with Amy, plan to run errands and then forget to run those errands, dip into the river across the road, leaving my flip flops on shore and deciding it's time for my foot soles to toughen up.
Tomorrow I'm making jam to fill out an order headed off to Seattle. The ship of restarting my business here in Vermont is nearly fulled turned and ready to steam ahead on course. I can feel it, that things are about to be busy and full.
Here is home. Each morning, Amy and I tumble downstairs to this, plug in the kettle and get out the coffee beans, digital scale and hand-grinder (little pieces of Seattle coffee culture packed in our luggage and unpacked immediately upon arrival).
A weekly rhythm is developing but there is spontaneity too. A morning of strawberry picking where that feeling of plunder, gratitude and over-exuberance take over and you start filling planters with the strawberries you can't stop picking. More, more more!
We are coming to the close of our first 24 hours as official Vermont residents. Mom picked Amy and I up from the airport late last night and whisked us home for a toast marking our arrival. Amy and I nodded at each other noting another toast to be made. Yesterday was our 6 year anniversary. One of my favorite conversations from our first few months together took place in Seattle's Discovery Park. We tossed ideas, ridiculous ideas, back and forth. Let's build a gypsy caravan and put a garden on wheels to pull behind us. "Sounds good", Amy would answer back. We were quiet for a moment. Then Amy started up again and added a commercial kitchen to the caravan. "Yes, yes", I said, "and we would travel town to town and cook for people." Then Amy would veer off topic and ask me for the third time since I met her a month ago if I'd ever been to the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Port Townshend Washington.
Now the gardens lie just outside the door and stretch all around the freshly painted white house my mother lives in. For the next 4 months, we'll live on the second floor of her house and work on moving into this new Vermont life. We are starting at a point where the dandelions have burst and the lilac bushes, which so many here use as hedgerow, fall in flowering somewhere between fists and fully unfurled.
By 7:30 tonight, Amy and I walked to the peak of the top hayfield and watched where on the grass the sun left first and stayed longest. When we stepped into the adjacent pasture, which the sun left first, the change of temperature was palpable. We have made our first micro-climate discoveries.
I'm trying to decide whether to stay up too late and watch some TV before closing my eyes. While I suss this out, Amy works on her application to drive buses for the Addison County transit system. They just started the hiring process for a part time driver. And tomorrow I interview for a job at Twig Farm. Fingers crossed all around.
In just a couple short weeks, with my partner Amy, I move to my childhood home in Vermont. We'll land on the west side of the state in a town called New Haven. I imagine that for the next year or more I will keep up my work as a restaurant cook and in the time left over, continue/expand V Smiley Preserves. Amy and I, with my mother's help, will throw ourselves into all the work to be done on the very grown in farmland, making plans, setting systems for this larger project of transforming the family farm into an agri-cultural hub in the New Haven River Valley.
I was born in the downstairs living room of the farm house that sits on a 150-acre farm my parents purchased in the 1970s. They raised Angus beef, tended a commercial vegetable garden and tried their hand at keeping an orchard. My father passed away 2.5 years ago so it's just my mom on the land now. Over the years my father and mother maintained a burly home garden that in size never shed its market garden roots. Last year my mother added more currant, elderberry, gooseberry bushes. And some fruit remains (rhubarb patches and apple trees) from my parent's original work on the land over 30 years ago.
Above you see the largest piece of open land on the farm. It's a 30 acre hayfield. Last year it was planted with non GMO soybeans and that crop was harvested by a local farmer. This year it will be re-planted with alfalfa. Two significant pieces of Nellis soil lie amongst the mostly clay soiled hayfield. My parents gardened both these well-draining Nellis pieces and the chances are good that Amy and I will reopen these fertile patches back up as we slowly, slowly expand what we grow on the farm.
Here's Mom! Susan Smiley. You can't see them, but off to the side is a thicket of purple raspberries and a stretch of land we have in mind for a big herb garden to produce aromatics for the fruit preserves. My mother has worked this land for decades. She knows all the spots. My mother has incredible, curious, warm energy. She is the reason for moving to Vermont. I want to know her better. I want to work with her, I want to carry on the work she started with my father and bask in her deep knowledge of not just her land, but the experience she has built from working professionally in food and agriculture. She is the heart of this next project.
Equal parts marmalade and jammy conserve, you can make this preserve year around, substituting Valencia oranges when you can’t find Navel oranges. Because the recipe uses citrus juice and the delightful tart and dried Royal Blenheim Apricot, the preserve’s finished flavor reminds me of drinking fresh squeezed orange juice. The cinnamon gives body and length to the flavor, but using Ceylon cinnamon keeps the flavor perky and doesn’t draw down the conserve’s vivacity. Do not substitute dried Turkish apricots! The flavor will be completely different. Dried Royal Blenheim Apricots are sometimes called California Apricots. Check your local grocer. I’ve noticed that Trader Joes consistently carries sulphered and unsulphered dried Royal Blenheims. I like to use the unsulphured apricots, but if you want that bright orange color go for the sulphered fruit. If you are still having trouble finding the Royal Blenheim Apricot (a very possible problem as this apricot variety is on the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, meaning it’s an endangered variety), head online and look around. Or plan ahead for next year. Here in Seattle, there are two farms that bring these apricots to the University District farmers market. Next summer, late June-early July, look for fresh Royal Blenheims at the summer markets and dry your own apricots for winter. You will treasure them!
1 lb. thin-sliced navel oranges. Some slicing technique: cut the orange into quarters lengthwise. Recreate a half orange by cozying two of the quarters (skin side up) side by side on your cutting board. Slice the two quarters using widthwise cuts. What falls away from your knife should look like slices of pie.
8 oz. dried Royal Blenheim Apricots in halves or pieces
8 oz. fresh squeezed, strained orange juice (8 oz of weight, not fluid ounces)
7 oz. fresh squeezed, strained lemon juice (8 oz of weight, not fluid ounces)
2 pounds 9 oz. blackberry honey
¼ teaspoon ground Ceylon Cinnamon
½ teaspoon almond extract
Slice the oranges as directed above. Distribute the slices evenly into a non-reactive cooking pan and cover with cold water to about an inch above the fruit line. On high heat, bring the water and fruit to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the cooking liquid by pouring the orange slices into a strainer. You have now blanched out a good bit of the orange’s bitterness. Return the orange slices to the non-reactive cooking pan and cover with cold water to 1 inch above the fruit line. Bring the pan to a boil over high heat, cover with a lid and lower the heat. Cook the fruit at a simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the fruit slices are tender. To check this, reach a fork into the pop and pick out a slice to sample. If the oranges are tender and finished, remove the pan from the heat and allow to sit covered overnight at room temperature.
While the orange slices cook, juice the oranges and lemons. Find a snug container for apricots, something large enough to allow the fruit to expand as it rehydrates and small enough to ensure the apricots stay covered in liquid. I often use a deli quart containers or an old yogurt tub. Just make sure the container doesn’t have any residual food smells.
I like to rehydrate my apricot halves and then give them a rough chop on day 2 using a food processor but if you don’t have one of those, take a moment now to chop your apricots into pieces roughly the size of ¼ inch by ¼ inch. Don’t worry about being too precise. You probably won’t mind the occasional big chunk of fruit in your finished preserves. Pour the strained juices over the dried apricots. I press a layer of plastic wrap on the surface of the apricots to assure they are sitting in liquid. Set your hydrating apricots in the refrigerator overnight.
If you chopped your apricots yesterday then skip to the next paragraph. Otherwise, get out the food processor and into its bowl place the apricots and any unabsorbed juice. Give 5-8 pulses to the fruit and liquid mixture depending on the power of the machine. It might be necessary to move things about in the bowl using a spatula to ensure a more even cut size. You want manageable, bite size pieces of apricot.
In a large bowl, mix together the blackberry honey, the apricot and juice mixture, the almond extract and the ground cinnamon. Last, add the orange slices and their liquid and give a few more swift stirs. Pour this mixture into an 11-12 quart non- reactive pan like an enameled Dutch oven or—if you have one—a copper jam pan. If you only have a stockpot, I advise dividing your batch of preserves in half and doing two separate cook sessions. This will ensure a quick cook time, giving you a lighter color, freshest flavor, and the greatest integrity to the conserve’s various textures.
Place a couple spoons on a saucer in your freezer. Bring the jam pan’s contents to a boil over high heat. Resist the temptation to stir at this juncture as it slows the cooking process. You will get lots of stirring in at the end of the cooking process. Let the conserve rip, bubble and roar at full heat. We are evaporating off moisture as fast possible here. Run a silicon spatula along the bottom of the pan using 3 or 4 strokes. You are not stirring. You are noting the texture of the pan’s bottom for any roughness or resistance, and then looking at the end of your spatula to see what, if anything, it pulls off the pan’s bottom. Check in like this every couple of minutes. If you start to encounter some resistance with your spatula or you’re dredging up some fruit bits on the end of your spatula, it’s time to attend the pan with your spatula more often. You are still cooking at high heat here, but if the conserve is spitting at you a lot, feel free to inch down the heat a little and put on an oven mitt to protect your hand. As you near the end of the cooking process, you are feeling along the bottom of the pan every 20 seconds or so. Notice how the bubbles of the mixture change; they grow fewer and look less watery. The conserve is done when you see the following: your spatula explorations leave a clearing that allow you to see the bottom of the pan, the surface of the conserve looks like molten bubbling lava with a riotous surface, the conserve moves as a mass, the mixture has a sheen to it, the pan has a low roar for sound, and the bubbles moving up from the surface contain no silvery water color. Instead, the bubbles are the same color as the conserve. When you see these signs, pull the pan off the heat.
To further check for doneness, place a small sample of the mixture onto one of your frozen spoons. Allow the spoon to cool in your freezer until the underside feels “room temperature”. Tilt the spoon. If the mixture has formed a skin and moves sluggishly down the spoon then the conserve is set and done. If the mixture runs down the spoon easily, return the pan to the stove and continue boiling. Remove the pan from the stove each time you check the set. Check the surface of the conserve in the pot after it’s rested off the stove for several minutes. If you notice a skin has formed on conserve’s surface, this is another sign you have achieved a set.
If you are canning the conserve, follow the jar manufacturer’s instructions. Otherwise, place the conserve in clean glass jars and let cool. Store the conserve in the refrigerator and enjoy often.
For sweet pizza:
Inside the barn, I stepped onto a floor made from several thousand neatly stacked haybales. At this midpoint of summer the hayloft contained only half its fill. Through late summer, my father baled hay and the rest of us slung it into place until our heads hit the rafters and even then we kept going. Deep August saw us pushing haybales around while standing on our knees, heads tucked to our chest. Not a task for a claustraphobic person. The loft held a temperature that ranged ten to fifteen degrees hotter than outside. We relied on natural light for our work, but the sun only angled through the doorframes at the front and back of the barn.
I stood leaning against the cool gunwales of the elevator and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Dust reigned in the loft. My asthmatic father stayed below waiting to feed bales of hay onto the moving teeth of the elevator. I watched him and the bales from my perch. After him I was the first to touch the hay. I guarded the fractious juncture between the vertical elevator I had just climbed and the separate elevator running horizontal along the length of the loft. This used to be my brother’s job. I’d sat and observed him many times. Now he was big enough to sling bales at the end of the line.
A chain of shouts started. My father yelled “ok!” to my mother, brother and sister who stood around the electrical outlet waiting to plug in the power cords for the elevators. “Ok?” my mother shouted back to confirm I was safely off the elevator. He gave back a sharp yep and she plugged in the first cord. The horizontal elevator came to life and commenced its rattling trundle. The second electrical cord connected and I watched my father adjust out of his resting state where elbows rested on knees that he propped on the bottom gunwales of the elevator. He looked up to the loft with a crinkle in his nose from bad eyesight. I knew he couldn’t see me. I heard my mother and siblings mount the wall-ladder built at the back of the loft. I listened to the way the haybales separating us muffled their voices.
The first bale off the wagon headed towards me. I touched it only slightly as it moved from one elevator to the next. The fifth bale bobbed on the track, nodding off side to side. Its shape had an upward curl that promised a challenge to the rafter at the apex of the first elevator. Refereeing all charged interactions between a wayward haybale and this rafter constituted 90% of my job. I took the front and back of the bale and pressed it down onto the track as hard as I could. The bale’s front end almost made the awkward drop onto the next elevator, but at the last moment, the little remainder of u-curve shape caught the rafter at the bale’s rear. This was my moment to get physical. In a few seconds the next bale coming up the track would also need to move through the juncture. Each passing tooth of the track tried to push the bale forward as it hung stuck. Suddenly the dusty, noisy air took on a full charge. Unless I found the strength to force the reluctant bale forward, it promised to burst between the pressures of the unyielding rafter and the relentless forward cluck of the elevator chain. Popping baling twine can be a horrible sound. But silence was worse. In these moments, I hustled because I must prevent the stuck bale from shorting the electrical-mechanical relationship of the elevator. That was a problem my father did not know how to fix.
I yelled to my father to stop putting haybales on the elevator. Next I shoved the bale, already on its way, off the track, but I didn’t push hard enough. Instead of falling neatly to the side inside the loft, the bale jumped onto the gunwales. It was perpendicular to the track, but moving, and in a snap the bale skidded down the elevator so fast it almost knocked my father over. Now he looked mad.
Protecting my hands as best I could, I again laid them at the front and back of the bale and pushed down with all my nine year old strength, flattening the bale’s curve and willing it to propel forward free. When I heard the pop I knew I hadn’t succeeded. The twine released and books of hay cascaded off the sides of the elevator. Some of it slipped down to where my father stood peering up to see how I fared. I could see the small disappointment on his face. I pushed the rest of the burst bale off the track and made sure no baling twine caught in the chain.
I climbed back atop the stack of bales positioned at the juncture of the elevators. Guerilla-like down below, my father turned around and picked out the next bales to send up. I stamped my feet back and forth and waited. He fussed with another misshapen bale, pressing it with his knee and dropping it hard onto the tines of the elevator track. He placed his hands flat on the bale and leaned into it quickly like he was doing pushups with handclaps inbetween dips. I watched the next misfit come up the elevator into my hands and directed it firmly.
Less than an hour later I saw my brother throw the last bale to my sister who nestled it into place with a final shove from her knee. My father jumped down to the ground. The elevators stilled and the muffled quiet of the loft popped. I heard my mother, already downstairs, talking with my father and I picked out the difference in sound between my sister and brother’s descent down the barn loft ladder. I followed, taking the elevator in a backwards climb.
We all met in front of the barn. I sat on the wagon tongue and listened to my parents. My father said he would bring in the day’s last wagon of hay straight away. And what about dinner my mother asked. I don’t feel like cooking he said. It’s too hot. My chest started to get warm. Maybe, maybe, maybe, yes! My mother suggested we get a pizza. I tried to look serious. And when my father seemed to hesitate I willed my face to look tired and unexcited. Oh, pizza, humdrum. We should have a salad with it he said. They agreed; while he collected the last wagon we were to gather greens and vegetables from the garden around the house.
I don’t know exactly where my siblings wandered off to, but my mother ended up in one of her flower beds, weeding. I hauled a basket into the asparagus field. I tried disappearing in the fronds of asparagus plants gone to seed. I didn’t want get assigned to weeding or mulching. I searched for late season asparagus shoots until I heard the tractor. I saw grandness in its entrance to our driveway; the day’s last piece of work coming up to the barn.
I already had the table set for dinner in my head. I placed five of the enameled camping plates—mostly only used for pizza nights—onto placemats left from lunch. I didn’t change the napkins even though they were soiled from eating chicken last night. Something told me it was wrong to launder them after less than a day’s use. The table always looked empty on a pizza night. No serving bowls or cast iron skillet hot off the stove to dominate the table’s center.
Climbing into the hayloft for the last time, I encountered the day’s heat fully realized and trapped in the organized mountains of hay. An oven. I hoped my mother would volunteer to pick up the pizza. I would sit next to her on the bench seat of the Ford Ranger pickup. The wood booth I waited in while my mother paid for the pizza would feel extra flat and hard after the car upholstery. I could smell the fat sourness of cheese and tomatoes cooking into each other. The air in the dining room of Cubbers Pizza Restaurant tickled with suspended flour. The same lady helped us every time. She had a perm and dyed her hair my mother said. I worried the lady would stab herself on the giant needle that impaled our receipt. I liked the crisp sound of the sharp needle top breaking through the paper. The receipt settled on top of orders for calzones and pepperoni pizzas without the lady hurting herself.
As the first bale came off the wagon and headed towards me, I lifted my arms and saw them grabbing two boxes of pizza off the restaurant counter. One small cheese and a large pie split down the middle, sausage on one side, green peppers on the other. My mother settled the strap of her purse on her shoulder. She held the restaurant’s screen door open for me. It snapped shut behind us. I set the stacked boxes on my lap. The burgundy colored seats of the truck were still warm from the sun beating on them. My sweat-sticky skin grabbed and then glued to the vinyl ridges of the upholstery.
The pizza started to tease. The crust and its cloak of sauce and cheese pressed their oven warmth through the cardboard box onto my thighs. My mother started the car and backed out of the parking space. The fast spread of smells had me looking at her, silently asking if we really had to wait until we got home to eat. The work of sharing could be avoided I thought. Maybe I could have as much I wanted? But my mother looked straight ahead, her torso tilted forward. We drove the speed limit home in silence. By home I felt lucky. I would carry the pizzas inside and present them with gusto, peeling the cardboard tops back, tucking them under the bottom of the box and making a serving platter. Or would I be told to set them on the cold wood cookstove and wait until someone dressed the salad?
I heard a consistent knocking sound that refocused my eyes. My hands were back at my sides. A bale pulsed upon the track of the hay elevator, jamming its head against that low barn rafter. I stopped breathing and jumped a little, raising my arms up to wrangle down the bale.
The gore of good food. Installment 2.
Inside the Mason jar, a colony of displaced potato beetles amassed. Right side up and upside down, their striped backs and orange bellies quilted the the jar’s glass bottom. I stuck my ear against the jar’s mouth. The cylindrical glass made a miniature concert chamber of bug sound. High squeaks roared like a bog on fire with frogs, crickets and mosquitoes.
My wrist got tired holding the jar when the grubs and beetles reached halfway up the quart. At the edge of the black plastic patch we used to grow eggplants and peppers lay two stacked stones the size of dinner plates. I tried to kneel, but the plastic was too hot. I settled into a squat and lifted off the top stone. I shook my jar like a salt shaker, laying down a layer of beetles and grubs onto the bottom stone. Two beetles found their legs and started off the stone. Like they held a compass, the beetles headed straight back to the potato patch. I picked them up and knocked them into the crook of my palm. Like two dice rolling off my fingers onto a gameboard, I shook the beetles back onto the stone slab.
Between swivels of my rock grinder, I felt the plump bodies of the grubs collapse and heard the crackle of the beetle shells breaking. It felt like my throat had a worm in it, heavy and squiggling. I doused the stone with more bugs, mostly grubs now, and again rubbed the two rocks together. The rock’s gray surface darkened to black. Orange mucus from the beetles and the pink skins of the grubs glistened against the stone my brother and I called the killing block.
I heard the sputtering exhaust of my father’s tractor. It signaled his descent downhill. Ian, Moira and I looked up from our places in the garden. Behind him, my father hauled the next wagonload of hay bound for the barn. My mother stayed bent over at the waist, speed-weeding young rows of Red Ace beets until the tractor stopped alongside the garden. Everyone but my mom headed to the haywagon. She said she would walk and meet us back at the barn. The rest of us scrambled to find a place atop the stacked haybales by climbing the outside of the wagon’s sides like they were sparse rungs on a ladder. After a scratchy ascent, we gained a bird’s eye view of the garden. I could see exactly where my brother had stopped thinning the corn.
Out on the paved road, the wagon slithered roly-poly and headed into the s-curve before the straightaway marked by our house on the right. I wondered if we would spill out onto the pavement. I ducked down into the hay when I saw the Box Elder tree branches coming towards me. I smelled machine oil in the baling twine. I breathed in through my mouth to catch the hay. Its scent moved faster than the twine’s, fat with heat from the sun and thick like the smell of a horse mane.
Tree branches snagged in the wooden joints of the wagon sides as we came up the driveway to the barn. For a moment the tree limbs stretched with the tractor’s velocity, then a tart sound of leaves plucked off their branches like feathers. I couldn’t climb down the front side of the wagon. Feeling for splinters on the weathered two-by-fours that made up the wagon sides, I climbed down to the ground and circled around to the front of the wagon.
In a moment I was climbing again, walking up the rust-brown wagon tongue, squeezing my body into the foot of room between the front of the wagon and the barrel that held up the hay elevator. Without knocking my shins on the tongue like I had so many times, I grasped the elevator gunwales. I popped my feet onto the barrel’s top, stood all the way up and walked up the length of the hay elevator with my eyes.
I had studied my siblings do this ascent many times. The track running up the elevator used steel teeth about an inch and a half long. The teeth dug into the haybales, securing them to the chain track that led into the hayloft. The teeth worried me. I feared for some confusion on the ground where my brother turned on the elevator with me still on it. I climbed, my eyes watching the track—making sure it stayed still—and craning my neck to see the oncoming windowframe I must climb through. At it, I dipped my head, lowering my body as deep as it could go and scooted under the wood sill, feeling the track’s teeth brush my belly.
Here is the pizza I promised, well, the start.
This is a slow roll out of stories about the place where I grew up and where I return to in May 2015. A lot of it is about my father who passed away 2 years ago. You'll hear a lot more about him.
Okay, installment one:
It had to be a hard enough day to order pizza for dinner, a sun up to sun down, put five wagons of haybales in the barn loft and and work all day in the garden kind of day.
Tonight promised the start of two rainy days. In the fields lay wagonloads worth of raked, dry hay ready for baling and then a trip into the hayloft. If not baled and put away today, we might lose the feed to a mildew the cows refused to eat or worse, a mildew that simmered in a stuffy barn loft, building heat until fire broke, a fire like we heard other farmers shake their head over, where a barn and the herd of cattle inside were just gone the next morning.
We packed Mason jars with water and orangeade, twisted rusty screwcaps over lids that smelled like the canned peaches they had previously sealed. My brother, sister, mother and I followed each other out the house door, heading to the paved road at the end of the driveway. As we found our stride, water made hollow sloshing sounds on the glass walls of the mason jars. Back in the yard outside the house, my father started up the tractor.
Hauling an empty hay wagon behind him, my father passed us just a hundred feet from where we all turned into the hayfield from the paved River Road. He waved hello to us even though we had all been speaking just ten minutes ago. Behind the steering wheel, my father let his shoulders slump in a relaxed fall. You could read the dips of the road in the way his arms jostled under a thinning white undershirt. His hands hung on the steering wheel. My father wore glasses that perched large and square between a full grey beard and eyebrows like whiskers that made his eyes beady and his smile wild. He downshifted the tractor to take the left turn into the hayfield. He signaled with his arm, the wagon hiccupping as he gassed the tractor and spun onto the field’s dirt road.
The rest of us walked over the same ground moments later and heard the squeak and groan of nails and wood talking as the wagon bumped over ruts in the dirt road beyond us. The garden lay at the base of the hayfield. We stopped midway along its length and fanned out; Ian headed to finish thinning the corn, Moira and Mom to mulch the onions. I walked to the trenches made from hilling the garden’s twelve rows of potatoes. The plants hadn’t flowered yet and until they did it was my job to fend off the black and white striped potato beetle and their soft pink grubs. Killing the bugs and their clusters of orange eggs set to hatch on the potato leaf undersides was the goriest and most repeated task in the garden. I tried to make the most of the assignment.
A pair of beetles mated at the base of a potato plant under the canopy of its leaves. They looked furtive there. I scraped the pair into my empty mason jar. Their shells made a small, definite sound on the jar’s glass bottom. For a few moments the beetles lay on their backs, legs folded flat, their underbellies still. Playing dead. I picked a leaf off a potato plant and dropped it to the beetles. I meant the offering for food but when the beetles came to, they saw a ramp and started climbing the glass sides. I flicked the jar and the beetles lost their ground. But they rolled over and retried. They’d spend the rest of their time like that, trying to escape.
Several acres away I heard the rhythms of the hay baler eating up rows of dried grasses and alfalfa, ramming it into a shape to be twined and shot out the rear of the machine. The haybale soared into the air and landed in the wagon. I couldn’t see this from my position in the potato patch, but I knew the routine. The whole machine vibrated with effort. My father bounced on the tractor seat according to the shape of the clay soil underneath the wheels. He would be looking forward, steady on the rows of raked grass ahead and then all of a sudden lash his head backwards to make sure the bales fell in the wagon and stayed put. When my father killed potato bugs he liked to squish them on the plant. He took their front end between his thumb and index finger and squeezed hard. The wet innards and occasional set of unlaid eggs squirted out the bug’s rear in an orange and black pool. Then he’d flick his thick fingers, flinging the dead bug back to the soil. But the grubs, the beetles that had no shell yet, didn’t die so neatly. The grubs overran the potato plants, came in all sizes, but always fat and bulbous. They had guts that did not come out neatly. My dad didn’t care. Watching him mash his way through the beetles and grubs disgusted me. I found other methods, ones I thought cleaner.
I think I’ve imagined owning, managing, and working for the opportunity to shape something since I was a kid. Shortly after graduating college with my Art History and English degree, I started thinking about the land in Vermont where I grew up. At the time I was involved in the arts, working in artist studios as an assistant and making art at home myself. But ultimately I was interested in more of a curatorial and artist support role, specifically building an art residency. I was thinking art residency on the farm in VT.
I moved up to Whidbey Island from Los Angeles to work at Hedgebrook, the women’s writing residency, as a cook and start learning about what it took to run an artist residency. Food is a big focus at Hedgebrook. They use it to create this ultimate environment for creativity. Several months into the job and at an art residency conference in Seattle, I heard this talk about non-profits and the future. Basically the speaker felt like a hybrid for/non-profit business model was the future of art institutions and this really hit a nerve for me.
Meanwhile food became more and more of a mental and professional focus for me. I kept thinking about the land in VT and thinking about what skills I needed to gather to work with that piece of land. I started to apply to BGI a couple years ago, but the financial load ultimately stopped me. Well, that and the online Graduate Math Course and test really bummed me out. So how do you start learning about business and the multitudinous subjects encompassed? I decided I wanted to take the learn-as-you-go approach. Start with something small, something familiar and within my skill set and voila, you get a tiny jam company.
On a very different note….
2. A quick lesson on flavors. One year later, I’m making sweeter jams. This happened organically. Yes, I think I’ve developed a little of a sweet tooth in the process of tasting so much jam. But I should qualify this by saying that in the field of jams, I still make a tart preserve. When I sample jam at the farmers market, I consistently get exclamations of “oh, that’s tart” but instead of it being too tart, it’s just tart enough to remind someone of the fresh fruit that fuels the jam. Revelations about where to go with flavor boil down to a good old lesson on knowing your audience. There are some requests I can never fill like making jam with stevia instead of honey but when 5 people ask me for a peach jam or 20 ask for a pepper jam, it’s fun to respond to those requests with a big “yes! I’ll get to work on that flavor.”
Big flavor lessons have come from sussing out how to use the same product line to fulfill both farmers markets and wholesale accounts, each having different demands. First, my wholesale accounts generally want “unique” but still recognizable flavor combinations like Strawberry Aprium Jam or Pear Quince Orange Ginger Marmalade. But at the farmers markets, people are hunting for that simple blackberry jam. Actually, it’s Marionberry I get asked for the most. One of my primary jobs as a jammer at the farmers market is to provide summer fruit flavor in the winter but most wholesale accounts have not interest in Raspberry jam in January. Instead these accounts tend to work more seasonally. They want peaches for summer, apples and pears for winter. With more chilly months in Seattle than warm ones I end up needing way more jars of cold weather fruit preserves than summer flavors so I can fill wholesale orders October-April. And yet I can only get those locally grown pears and quince September-December. This makes fall exceedingly busy as I rush to capitalize on low fruit prices and local availability. But I also choose to stretch the idea of local seasonality to include California citrus. Divine flavors like Bergamot and Seville Oranges come on strong from California as the last local storage pears and quince give out in December.
Slowly too, as I develop regulars at the farmers market, people have grown the habit of stopping by the jam stand to taste what’s new this week. This weekend it’s the return of Tomato Jam, which went out of stock 2 months ago, and next week I tell them, I’ll have Nectarine Plum Cherry Conserve. I love those conversations and our shared sense of anticipation.
Last weekend marked my first anniversary with V Smiley Preserves. I love a chance to get nostalgic so I’ve put together a narrative list of recounting, gathering the year around me, noting its beats and ticks and conducting it into memory with a lot of gratitude. Today I’m starting with the great supporters of my first year in business, which is the most personal of the notes. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about more business-y items like the farmers market and the decisions that go into the jam flavors.
1. The producers. I started V Smiley Preserves with enough money to carry me through 4 months of operations. I told myself that at month 4 I’d reflect and evaluate whether I wanted to continue with the project. I ran out of money in 2 months. This is classic. I paid my kitchen rent and bought honey and fruit out of my paycheck from cooking at the Whale Wins.
At month 4, I walked my bike home from my oral surgeon’s office who had just told me I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. They thought I was having a heart attack. The left side of my face had gone numb and my chest hurt. A week before I had been sidelined by an oral infection and accompanying fever stemming from impacted wisdom teeth. I had insurance, but not the kind that would cover a visit to the emergency room. All I could think about was my little jam company. If I went to the emergency room, I’d lose my business to medical bills. So I walked home, fell into bed, cried for a while and fell asleep. Amy came home from work later in the evening and—just as I knew she would—insisted we go to the emergency room.
Turns out it wasn’t a heart attack. I had Bells Palsy and the chest pains were stress symptoms like I’d never experienced. I scared the shit out of my family. My sister Moira drove up from LA to spend a weekend with me and listen to me talk in circles about the jam company. My mother gave me the most generous financial gift that allowed me to pay my medical bills , which meant I could keep V Smiley Preserves afloat. These are the executive and associate producers behind V Smiley Preserves. And then there is Amy. Between my restaurant job and V Smiley Preserves, I work 7 days a week. Amy and I don’t see a lot of each other. How do you support your partner and their project when you primarily associate that project with taking the person you love away from you? This has been a central question for Amy. And I am mostly very tired and want lots of help and am angry when I don’t get it. We don’t have all the answers to these quandaries answered yet, but man, we have a come a long way and when Amy and I clinked our glasses of bubbly together this weekend, I couldn’t help but feel that the greatest triumph of the last year has been the rhythm and grace we have found.
I noticed these walking down Union Street on my way into the Madrona Farmers Market.
Blackberry blossoms in various stages of unfurling. The flowers made me think of all the bees who work these white blossoms, eventually producing the Blackberry honey I use for my jams.
There are so many ways to say summer has begun. It's the first clingstone peaches at the market, the 4th of July fireworks prep down in South Lake Union, the nighttime temperatures that don't dip below 50 and keep our tomato plants singing, and the sometimes satisfied, sometimes graspy feeling of tiredness that moves up and down the body.
Yestetday's heat almost bowled me over. I worked a day shift at the restaurant and probably drank too much ice tea and not enough water. I went home after my shift and slept until Amy called to give a 'critter report' from the garden. She spoke into the phone quiet and excited as she watched two hummingbirds next to her fight for access to her sage blossoms while in the next plot over our resident rat had just scrambled up the netting on the neighbor's raspberry bushes and ducked inside the brambles for dinner. While the rat ate raspberries, more birds gathered in the pathway to the compost bins. With their wings, they dished out the top layer of gravel to unearth a softer subsoil underneath in which they whirled and fluttered, bathing in the dirt like a flock of chickens. I had the curtains pulled for my nap, but Amy's snapshot gave me a sunset view without moving an inch.
This morning I'm waiting on a phone call from Schuh Farms. Will they deliver my order of Tayberries and raspberries to the kitchen or do I need to meet them at Pier 91 tomorrow at 8 am? While I wait, I'm eating Coconut Cupakes that contain a layer of Strawberry Aprium Jam in the middle. In a moment I can pull my work aprons hot from the dryer. I'll pack them and my bike lights (for my midnight ride home) into my orange bag and head into the restaurant for work tonight.
I would be a fool not to drop a line on a day like this. I forgot to put my jam kitchen dishes away, three plastic cambros, a big steel spoon, a warped cutting board, a dull paring knife, and I just sent my landlord message apologizing, but that episode aside, today was a success. And though it's the second week of May, it feels like the first day of the year.
After over two months away from jam production, I rode my bicycle down down to SODO in deep rain. I soaped down my juice press, pulled out a cutting board, squeezed lemons for juice and over the afternoon I cut 40 pounds of rhubarb and 35 lbs of apples. Everything got stirred vigorously with honey and half a vanilla bean, blanketed with a layer of plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator to macerate for 2 days. On Saturday I have a burly day of production in front of me. 11 pots of a flavor I have never taken all the way through the jarring process. I've mocked up the flavor several times and made many batches in bulk for the Whale Wins, but jarring is totally different. Fingers crossed things go smoothly on Saturday.
But in spirit, today does feel like the first of the year. I am looking out on a packed year of production. V Smiley Preserves heads into the supermarket this summer. 6 locations of Metropolitan Market. 2 Seattle Farmers Markets. At the same time Amy and I are planning our move back to my home in Vermont for 2015. In the meantime I want to meet as many people as I can at the markets and cook and share as much jam as I can jar. Rhubarb into cherries, strawberries with Apriums and so much stone fruit to swill with berries until the apples, quince, and pears outweigh their branches. Here we go!