Early each summer I pick strawberries and make jam. The timing isn’t ever ideal as strawberry season in Maine tends to peak as school ends and the onslaught of summer activities and visitors hits. Jam making is, however, one of my cherished rites of early summer and enjoying home-made strawberry jam in the midst of winter is a big payoff for a day’s work.
Yesterday morning I suddenly realized that it was my first and last opportunity to pick strawberries and make jam. My kids were already busy, so I set off to pick on my own. When I arrived at the farm, the strawberry fields were already generously dotted with other pickers. I filled a wooden trug with my stained green quart baskets, wandered out into a likely looking area and began looking for berries. The sun was hot on my head and shoulders, and initially, berries were few and far between. I overheard a number of people comment that the picking had been so much better last week. It was slow going at first, but soon I fell into an easy rhythm and relaxed into the task. I moved along the rows, enjoying the sweet scent and the feel of warm, ripe berries slipping from my hands into the baskets. A slight breeze kept the bugs to a minimum, and snippets of conversations rose and fell around me.
“You are the best strawberry-picker I’ve ever seen!” said an admiring grandmother to her young granddaughter. “Isn’t she the best, PopPop?”
“Never seen better,” her grandfather agreed.
“Only four years old and she’s already picked two quarts,” her grandmother announced.
“Look, PopPop! Here’s another one,” the child chimed. I looked up and saw her. She held her hand outstretched toward her grandfather. Her long russet braid hung down her back and tendrils of delicate hair framed her face, which was lit by a brilliant grin.
“Well, look at the size of that one!” he said, grinning back at her.
“…and not a drop of strawberry juice on her clothes!” continued her grandmother. “Have you ever seen a 4 year old who could pick berries like that? You know, she doesn’t even remember picking last year, but she was only 3 then.”
They chatted in this admiring vein for quite some time, their granddaughter basking in the sunshine, her achievements and their approval. I continued picking, listening to the soft thud of juicy strawberries mounding in my basket and the soft murmurs of their conversation.
Eventually I stood and stretched, easing the kinks from my lower back, and hoisted my laden basket to head to the farm stand. I paid up and headed toward home for a full day of jam-making. It’s hot, sticky work but oh, so rewarding. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of transforming those sun-warmed ruby-red fruits into jar after jar of bottled jam and then stacking them neatly in my pantry–Essence of summer captured in my cupboard.
On some cold, dark day this winter, I’ll pull a softly glowing jar of ruby jam from my pantry. I’ll open it up and inhale deeply. And for just a moment, I’ll transcend that moment and relive this field and this day and the warmth of summer sun on my skin. I’ll hear the echoes of the loving conversation and remember the earthy and sweet scents of the strawberry fields, and hear again the soft plops of the berries piling up in my quart baskets. I’ll think nostalgically of the steamy sweet-smelling kitchen and the sticky pots and pans and that magical transformation from berry to jam.
I don’t know if my fellow-pickers made jam with their strawberry bounty, but I like to think so. I like to imagine a day many months from now and a young girl in a far-off kitchen with windows framing the cold winter scene outside. I can almost see her standing there with her open jar of strawberry jam and a dreamy smile on her lips. Jam magic.