My body’s in the kitchen at Leni Sorensen’s, taking a canning class, but my mind is far, far away.
There’s a memory nibbling at the corners of my consciousness so part of
me is blanching and peeling peaches and making conversation with the other women who’ve driven out to Doylesville for this event–and part of me is six or thereabouts, and standing on the back porch at my grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. “Down home” we called it even though it was three hours north and west of where my folks and I lived along the coast.
This porch is a screened porch and I recall how spacious it seemed, with three large windows and deep shelves beneath. This porch was one of my favorite places on the farm. My secret pathway past nosy adults who were always dipping into a little girl’s business.
Just out the door and down the stairs was an apple tree with tart green fruit which I adored. Beside the tree was the little smokehouse, where treats like ripening tomatoes were kept handy until canning day. Beyond that was the hay pasture where the grasses were taller than I was and I would hide and play for hours … In the day time that is. But this is a nighttime memory. Nights down home were a velvet country dark so deep that spooks and snakes seemed inevitable. I stayed close to home when night fell on the farm.
Mawmaw kept her treasured Maytag washer with the wringer attachment on this porch. I was to tangle with that wringer and lose another time, but at this moment I am focused on the shelves behind that washer, shelves that are groaning with the weight of many quart jars filled with peaches. Row upon row of them, rose and gold, blushing as if newly picked and magicked into the jars.
Mawmaw will select a jar and make a cobbler for me–this was her promise to me, and Mawmaw never broke her promises … certainly not when it came to pie and little girls.
This day at Leni’s will be magical because of the alchemical mingling of memory and history. Leni, an African Americanist and culinary historian just retired as senior African American research historian at Monticello, is full of tales of the presidents’ enslaved chefs. She’ll teach us much of the history of canning on middling to prosperous farms and the lives of the women who practiced the art.
But as the conversation dips and dives from subject to subject, I’m remembering my grandmother’s “kitchen garden”–an acre if it was an inch. I’m remembering the pride in my mother’s voice as she tells me that Mawmaw, a mother of seven with hired men to feed and an army of nieces and nephews dropping in and out for an afternoon–or a year–put away enough produce every year to ensure that there was a vegetable course and fruit (or a fruit pie) with every meal.
“People who didn’t grow up on the farm, they missed half their lives,” says my mother–she of the Pendleton suits and Ferragamo shoes: the absolute last person one could imagine hoeing cotton or snapping beans with her sisters on the front porch. Mama has worked hard–and successfully–over many years to shake the dust of the farm off her feet, but she takes a perverse pride in my new accomplishments. “Did you root that?” she’ll say when I bring her a new plant, then she’ll get this pleased secret little smile when I say yes.
Filling my jar with peach quarters, I think to myself: “This one’s for you, ma.”