My quest to create and hoard food for the winter was unfulfilled

The Enterprise — Jo E. Prout

Strawberry preserves made from local produce. “I didn't get to pick my own, but I recognized the same farm name at the store and grabbed them up,” says Jo E. Prout.

My empty canning jars are stockpiled and ready for harvest season. I saved them all year, filling a few here and there with pickles from a friend’s leftover cucumbers and jam from a couple pints of strawberries. The majority, however, sit empty. I set out last week to rectify that with some donated elderberries.

A friend asked me if I’d like some, as she wanted to pick them before the birds got them all.

“I’ll take them. Thanks!” I said, with my empty jars in mind.

“Are you home?” she asked. I told her I wasn’t. When I arrived at my doorstep soon after, she had already delivered.

She gave me three gallons of elderberry branches, loaded with fruit! Have you seen elderberries? They are tiny, like the tiniest grapes imaginable, and can be combed from the vine. I used a fork to comb mine. With a half-hour’s work, I had enough to boil down to make one and a half pints of jam. That equals three cups, in case pints measurement isn’t your forte.

Well, I hadn’t promised I would use all of the elderberries, and, at this rate, I wouldn’t get to — from the smell, I figured some of the berries at the bottom were already fermenting, and combing berries isn’t as fun as you’d think.

I wouldn’t fill my cupboard, but I’d have a new experience, so I thought I’d do this little bunch, making enough to try at home and enough to share with my friend following canning etiquette — always, of course, giving a sample of what you’d made to the donor of the goods.

“Here you go. Thanks so much,” I’d say, handing over a wee jelly jar with a pretty, embellished lid. Lid embellishment is not strictly required in canning etiquette, but doing so adds a nice tone to the exchange.

I was prepared to take a chance with this batch that the Googling I’d done — about how elderberries aren’t really toxic, if picked correctly — was enough: We weren’t going to die, and neither would my friend once she tasted her portion!

I sure hoped these little stainy fruits we’d labored over really were elderberries, and that this was the correct harvest time. Who says cooking isn’t exciting?

Most gardeners in September are tired of canning and are ready to throw everything that’s left in the freezer, having spent the summer processing veggies in the heat of a water bath. I wasn’t tired, at all, because, in June, I planted my garden late, hoping to avoid the life cycle of squash bugs. I also bowed to predator pressure and put in raised gardens and new soil surrounded by ugly fencing.

My garden always grows better straight from the ground, from seed — except for tomatoes, I can’t get the hang of hardening off seedlings and transplanting them — but my lovely garden has taken a hit the last few years from those hateful squash bugs, bold rabbits that no longer care about my dogs, and deer that jump my ag fence.

And, living as I do in the New York countryside, I have to mention the meanest, nastiest, strongest weeds I’ve ever seen. I have lived in Texas, where the weeds are not bigger, although everything else is; and I have lived in the breadbasket-y Midwest, where seeds seemingly dropped randomly on the ground grow and flourish. New York weeds are champion nasties. I hate them and all their chemical-burning, prickle-poking, stinging-needle selves.

When I say that my garden always grows better straight from the ground, I don’t mean that I have a great garden; my suburban and village neighbors seem to have more produce than I do, annually, with their sweet little fenced-in raised beds, so I decided to give the beds a whirl this year.

My plans partially worked: no deer, no squash bugs. The beds made weeding a breeze.

The rabbits, however, thought the ag fence was cute. The birds (I forgot the birds!) didn’t even notice it as they helped themselves to anything they liked.

My new raised beds, filled with soil from a bag rather than homegrown topsoil, begged for nutrients. The summer drought made the garden shrivel in on itself, even though I carried gallons of water to it every week.

And, just like that, I retained my status as an exuberant but unsuccessful gardener. Yet, again, an over-abundance of zucchini and cucumbers eluded me.

Perhaps you’ll understand, now, why I was determined to fill those tiny half-pint jars with elderberry preserves; my quest to create and hoard food for the winter was unfulfilled. I had shared no produce; none would return to me in jelly jars embellished with pretty lids.

I soaked the elderberries with enough water to cover them to remove any little spiders and bits of dust and stems that remained, and started stirring them with my fork. I was ready to drain them and add sugar and finish this little exercise, when I noticed a stem previously overlooked. I removed it, then saw another, and another.

Moments later, my fingers purple from fixing my bad berry-combing job, a tiny stem wriggled up to the surface.

“Ack!” I said. My husband saw me, saw the worm, and vowed to avoid my preserves.

“It’s just a worm,” I said. “All produce has bugs at first. You just have to remove them. You probably eat all sorts of things in your processed food from the store.”

I rinsed the berries and gave them another stir. More worms.

I called my daughter into the kitchen to help by holding a light over the bowl for me. Being a young person, she grabbed a phone with a flashlight app and shined it while I stirred a bit more.

Dang and blast, there were too many. I realized that the worms hadn’t been on the outside of the fruit, but were, instead, coming out of the fruit. The whole batch was contaminated.

One hundred years ago, people would have cooked up the whole pot and enjoyed a bit of protein in their jam — waste not, want not. I hate to waste, but I “wanted not” worms more than I cared about waste.

“That’s it. You can turn off the light,” I told my daughter.

“Did you get all the worms?” my husband asked.

“Worms?!” my daughter asked. Shrieked. Whatever. “Is that why I was holding the light?” She ran from the room, screaming and retching. She’s pretty talented.

I refused to throw the elderberries out; I soaked them overnight, determined to be reasonable about things in the morning. Meanwhile, the kitchen smelled of fermenting elderberries thanks to the mounds of untouched fruit still needing attention.

I saw my friend and her husband at church the next day.

“What are you going to do with those elderberries?” he asked me right away.

Panic. Pure panic. Then, I said, “Probably jam. I’ve been combing them. Thanks so much for all your work.”

I am just a charmer. Not a liar, especially not in church. Just, you know, tactful-ish. It wasn’t a lie! I hadn’t decided yet! I did comb them!

My friend and her husband picked and picked those elderberries in the heat. They drove a decent distance to bring them to me, because I asked. I could drain the berries and make a tiny batch of jam. I’m sure off-brand jelly from the grocery store has just as much “extra goodness” as these elderberries would. I’m sure of it. And, the fruit had been soaked for 12 hours. What would be the harm?

“Throw ’em out. All of ’em,” I said when I walked back into my smelly kitchen. Within 20 seconds, my husband was feeding the birds outside.

Darn that canning etiquette! Now what would I do?

I think I’ll hand my friend a copy of this column, and a jar of store-bought elderberry jam. Friendship, after all, is worth honesty and a trip to the market in search of a pretty lid.

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