Over the weekend a friend invited me to make quince jam. Quince, I learned, is a “pome” fruit, a cousin of the apple and pear. Some believe it was the quince and not the apple Eve plucked in the garden, the quince and not the “golden apple” at the heart of the Trojan War. Most Colonial gardens had quince trees. Quince fruit is loaded with pectin but labor-intensive to access. As soon as modernity figured out how to manufacture pectin, the virtues of quince fell away, and now it’s rare to find a quince tree growing in backyard gardens. It’s an old story.
While the fruits in a bowl can fragrance a whole room, they’re too tough and sour to eat and need to be cooked.
Every year, in remembrance of her mother, my friend cooks up a batch or two of quince jam using her mother’s handwritten recipe. This method requires more than twenty-four hours– day one you cook down the fruits and strain them through cheesecloth; the next day you boil the juice with sugar until it sheets in the right viscosity. Although quince meat is white, once you process it for jam it blooms first a salmon color, and then the most gorgeous shade of amber.
I was honored at the invite to participate in this autumnal ritual, a tender communion between mother and daughter. At the bottom of the page, faded and water-marked through years of use, her mother had drawn a little heart.
At our house, we try not to gobble up our preserved fruits too quickly. It’s important, in March especially, to have access to a jar of peaches put up during summer’s heat. To remember standing next to the tree and eating the perfect one. We picked it, rubbed the surface gently to stand down the fuzz. Golden and red, neither mealy nor too hard, the juice dripped everywhere.
As it always does, canning strikes me as an activity as much about celebration as it is about longing. We gorge and revel in the fruits of our labors and that of others. And yet there’s palpable yearning in our efforts – all those brilliantly colored jars are sense memories of summers recent and past. We are desperate to preserve these as we steel ourselves for the dark season, for the uncertain future. The inherent hope present in germination, the thrill and sometimes defeat of the growing season, the labor and satisfaction of harvest, the reflection necessary to begin the cycle again as we put up jars and save seeds: These are the elements of stories that resonate.
I’ve had my head lost in writing fiction lately (thus, the radio silence here), so longing has been on my mind more than usual. My characters are a lot pulsing with yearning, desperate in their quest for it; they make messes everywhere, then shamble through the messes they’ve made, hoping, still, they’ll get at least some flint of their desires.
Emily Dickinson, fond of the gardening metaphor, wrote about longing in far fewer words than I’ve used here. I would’ve like to sit down over toast and preserves with Emily. After, we’d walk out to the garden and noodle about a place for a quince tree to live in our tiny orchard.
That wrestles in the Ground,
Believing if it intercede
It shall at length be found.
The Hour, and the Clime-
Each Circumstance unknown,
What Constancy must be achieved
Before it see the Sun!
*This is supposed to be two stanzas. The first ends after “found,” but I can’t drive the formatting well enough to make it look that way. Apologies to Emily.