“Mommy, why are you smiling?” Patrick asked, sitting patiently in the grocery cart.
“Well, I was just thinking about a memory,” I said, jiggling the glass jar like a snow globe, watching the aromatics float and skid about the jar. Different packaging than I remembered . . . but the same slivered garlic cloves, the same cool beans.
Like looking into a crystal ball suddenly I was transported back in time. I saw myself standing at the bar at the fine-dining restaurant perched at the edge of the sea where I used to work when I was in college. The doors and windows were open and the place was crowded with people, live acoustic music, the clinking glasses, the hustle and bustle as I leaned into the bar waiting for the drinks my guests had ordered.
There was a jar of the those beans just like the ones in the gourmet market . . . briny, salty, spicy, garlic floated around on the bottom, red chili flakes and coriander balls. The other drink garnishments were open for our fingers to slip into. A Mai Tai was garnished with a fresh cut pineapple skewered with a maraschino cherry.
But the Bloody Mary I was waiting on required one of those pickled green beans and only the bartender was allowed to garnish that drink because of how expensive the specialty beans were. They would wriggle their fingers into the mason jar and pull out those beans. Plunging them into the Bloody Mary and then the rest of us got to spear the green olives and lime squeeze.
Boy I wanted to try one of those beans.
As a broke college student, every tip was accounted for — there was no room for drinks garnished with gourmet beans. The pickled jar of string beans reminded me of how I used to observe other people at the restaurant, the people who could afford the beans.
It felt a little like a kid with her nose and fingers pressed up against a toy shop window, dreaming of the day when she would get to play and eat pickled string beans too.
But the beans reminded me of something even more powerful – the elation I felt at the end of the night when once again I was able to pay my rent and go to the University of Washington, making my way on my own and finding that though it was hard, I could do it.
Next in line at the market was the canned peaches.
I picked up a jar snug with half moon orbs suspended in their own thick syrup. And saw my past once again . . . in the peaches.
This time I saw my five-year-old sitting next to my sister in Mrs. Hagen’s kitchen. Mrs. Hagen was a grandmotherly, kind-hearted babysitter.
For snack Mrs. Hagen made my sister and me graham cracker and chocolate frosting sandwiches. I loved squishing the thick layer of frosting out the sides and licking the edges.
Mrs. Hagen lovingly tended the largest garden in the neighborhood. It was flush with all kinds of peas, wax beans, strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, pumpkins. Most summer days were spent sitting beside the warm composting piles that smelled like rotting grass as I lay in wait for the unsuspecting garter snake to slither out.
I loved helping Mrs. Hagen peel apples from her grove of apple trees. My sister and I were given potato peelers. I remember feeling awed by Mrs. Hagen’s paring prowess; standing in front of the kitchen sink, she would peel the skin off an entire apple in one long string—one after another.
Our reward for helping was a slice of cinnamony sweet apple pie.
But my favorite treat of all was Mrs. Hagen’s canned peaches.
Canning peaches was an all-day event: steaming jars, cutting peaches and filling a cauldron sized enamel pot with fruit, pounds of C&H sugar and pectin.
Afterward we helped transport most of Mrs. Hagen’s jars into the cellar.
However, when we returned to Mrs. Hagen’s kitchen, her gift to us was a beautifully curved mound of cottage cheese topped with a still warm canned peach with syrup juice spilling over the sides into a sweet, sour, creaminess that warmed my belly.
I recall how comforted and special I felt in Mrs. Hagen’s garden and kitchen — at a time when my parents were in the midst of a divorce. Those days spent at Mrs. Hagen’s were a haven.
I’ve been paying forward Mrs. Hagen’s canned comfort food in the form of strawberry and raspberry jam.
Every season we visit the Renton Farmer’s Market prowling around for the plumpest, juiciest raspberries and strawberries. And like Mrs. Hagen my kids and I make a day of it: cutting fruit, boiling and cooking jam, designing fun labels and packaging with recipes and fun tags to pass out to friends and family.
“So Mommy, are you going to get the beans or the peaches?”
I glanced down at Patrick.
I put the jars back on the shelf.
“We’re going to learn how to make both!” I said.
I love suggestions! If you know of people or places in Renton that surprise, delight and inspire the community, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Carolyn: Cooking with kids
We’ll be filming the first episode of our web series, “Cooking with kids at IKEA” 10:30-11:15 a.m. June 27, where we will capture the time-honored tradition of canning and sharing canning comfort stories.
Canning aficionado and famed garden whisperer Amy Pennington, author of “Urban Pantry” and host of KCTS “Check, Please!”, (pictured at right) will join me and the kiddoes in IKEA’s demo kitchen for a free canning event.
All are welcome as we explore the lost art of giving simple gifts like sweet strawberry jam or brandied cherries infused with aromatics for a mean martini!
Amy and Carolyn with show tips on fruit and veggie preparation, designing personal jar labels, the art of repurposing brown bags into unique gift packages complete with a recipe tag. For more information, go to http://www.ikea.com/us/en/store/seattle/activities.