My friend and neighbor Jennifer Mattern maintains a consistently hilarious and often poignant parenting blog, Breed ‘Em and Weep. She turns her considerable talents this week towards talking about some of what makes our part of the world (Berkshire County, Massachusetts) so uniquely wonderful: vegetable stands that run on the honor system, pick your own berry farms, agricultural fairs, local politics and unique stories in the crime blotter (vandals squeezing toothpaste into the windows of cars, but very few drive-by shootings…)
It’s a useful reminder for me, because summer is the season I find harder to love here in the Berkshires. Not hard to love, mind you, just harder than the other three seasons, which I love unambiguously and without reservation. Summer is hot – unusually so this year, which has been downright tropical – but any temperature over 20C makes me unhappy, so I spend much of the summer longing for the next time I can put on a sweater and light a fire in the fireplace. It gets crowded here – lots of tourists who enjoy our museums, cultural festivals and greenspace away from Boston and New York. Most of the folks who visit are lovely folks, but it only takes one unhappy individual who is convinced he needs to push and shove or drive aggresively to ruin one’s whole day…
But the grand upside of summer is the annual miracle of food growing out of the ground. I still find this hard to believe. For eight months out of the year, my backyard consists mostly of snow, mud and sticks. For four months, it’s an explosion of green. I take calls on my mobile phone and wander my yard, picking raspberries in June, blackberries in August, and, if they survive the winter, blueberries from our new bushes next July…
Caretaker Farm, as seen from the bean field
For the four green months of the year, much of our food comes from Caretaker Farm, a community supported farm in Williamstown, MA. Community Supported Agriculture is a clever solution to one of the toughest problems of small-scale farming – how can farmers earn enough money to keep their land in bad years as well as good? CSAs invite members of the community to pay annual dues and share in the harvest of the farm – in a good year, members get massive quantities of organic vegetables, and in poor years, they still get a decent harvest, but the farmers are guaranteed a minimum income which allows them to hold onto their land and plan for the future.
I’ve been a member of Caretaker since 1992 and learned years ago that the only way to deal with the bounty the farm produces in August and September was to get good at food preservation. In college, this meant making 10 gallon vats of vegetable-laden spaghetti sauce and freezing it for the winter. These days, it means pickling.
What 20 quarts of pickles looks like. In case you were curious.
Thanks to a few bad (and now mostly forgotten) experiments and lots of reliance on Linda Ziedrich’s “The Joy of Pickling”, we now pickle cucumbers, string beans, carrots, zuchinni and brussel sprouts every year, as well as sun-drying tomatoes and packing them in oil and freezing tomato pulp. While we’re good at it and we enjoy it, it makes for some long, hot summer days packing beans into quart jars and sterilizing them in boiling water.
So this year, we took a page from Tom Saywer and have been enlisting friends and family to share the workload. A few months back, my mother mentioned that regretted never learning about pickling from her mother. So we recruited her to come help pickle the five gallons of green beans my friend Sara and I picked. Two weekends later, my friend (and brilliant science illustrator) Emily Cooper helped me harvest four gallons of tomatoes and an additional two gallons of green beans. And if all goes well, we’ll put up three or four gallons of brussel sprouts later in the year, just before the first hard frost.
Emily readies green beans for pickling
In a world where it’s possible to get raspberries from Chile and lettuce from Southern California in the middle of winter, it seems oddly primitive to preserve one’s own food. And honestly, it’s hard to explain to you why we do it until you taste what a green bean pickled with basil tastes like on a February night. Suffice it to say that there’s something tremendously reassuring about a pair of shelves in our kitchen filled with perfect vegetables, getting better with age and waiting to bring a splash of color and flavor to a day that’s otherwise entirely grey.
I’m not the only 21st century technogeek with a sideline in food preservation. Joi Ito has an excellent guide to nukamiso pickling, a Japanese process that involves fermenting vegetables in a mush made from rice husks. It’s about as far process-wise from the technique we use (packing vegetables in salt water and vinegar, then sterilizing them by boiling), but it makes me happy to know that another geek friend is pickling vegetables on the other side of the world as I gaze fondly at the row of green and red jars in my pantry.