Preserving Old Traditions

Recently I was rereading for the umpteenth time Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin and its sequel, More Home Cooking. In her inimitable style, Colwin describes her amazement at the moment that she realized that her husband was indeed a European: she found him eating paper-thin pancakes smeared with jam instead of butter and syrup as Americans do. She devotes a chapter to her decision to make jam, and decides upon plum jam due to it being more difficult to purchase in a store. She made it seem so easy, which is one of her special talents, taking a recipe which to the normal home cook would seem daunting if not impossible and make it seem like something we can successfully take on. Then and there I decided I would make jam.

Even though my mom never made jam or jelly or “canned” anything, I grew up with these homemade items. We were regularly given things by friends and family members like strawberry jam, fig preserves, and other items that had been magically cooked in a normal pot in a normal home kitchen and then sealed in a jar so that it could sit on a pantry shelf for an indefinite period of time. Fig preserves is one of my favorites. When I married, my husband’s godmother started sending us jars of her preserves at the holidays, accompanied by some of her famous Italian cookies. Once she sent us a jar of pear preserves and it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before—delicious.

I approached this project much like I do anything that I am attempting for the first time: extensive Googling and research via my own considerable library. First I reread Colwin’s chapter on plum jam. Knowing that canning jars were either “Mason” or “Ball” brand, I checked their websites for information. I spent quite a bit of time on Pinterest and found new links to explore, including several YouTube videos that indeed made it seem doable.

During this exploratory period, I happened upon an episode of the Food Network television show The Barefoot Contessa. This particular episode featured Ina Garten making orange marmalade. My decision was made. I would begin with Garten’s recipe for orange marmalade. It gave exact measurements and time frames, which unlike Colwin’s (as with most of her “recipes”), was really a well-told story about how to make plum jam.

My husband, the family grocery shopper, or “logistics officer” as he once called himself, picked up the short list of ingredients: sugar, four navel oranges, and two lemons. He also managed to find a dozen half-pint canning jars on sale at our local grocery store. From my research I knew that I would need canning supplies such as a jar lifter, a canning pot, tongs, and a funnel. So I called some of my more domestic-oriented friends to see if I could borrow these items for the weekend. Finally, I had everything I needed, my Googling had sufficiently given me the courage I needed, and I was ready to begin.

That’s when I realized that this recipe was a two-parter. I guess in my excitement when watching the episode I didn’t realize that the sliced oranges and lemons had to soak overnight in a water and sugar bath. This was embarrassing, a rookie mistake. Always read the recipe all the way through before beginning!

The next day, with my oranges and lemons having spent the requisite time in the simple syrup mixture, I read the recipe again and started the process of jam-making, or in this case, marmalade-making. Apparently the difference between marmalade and jam is the inclusion of both the rinds and the flesh of the fruit, which means that all marmalade is made from citrus fruits.

01d5213900a61ed607a38d8e02561c2ef4c1c05910Because Garten’s recipe does not call for pectin, this process was quite time-consuming. The cooking process took about three hours but finally, the “jam temperature” had been reached and when dropping a bit of the marmalade mixture onto a saucer that had been placed in the freezer for a while, it puddled up in a little glob when pushed with my finger. Then the scary part began.

014ca32e7cfd96f54aa4c81d51d66c5632e36fe8d3For the safe preservation of foods, everything that comes into contact with the food must be completely sterile and then the sealed jars have to be “processed” for the prescribed amount of time. I tried not to think about the possibilities of screwing this up and bringing botulism upon my loved ones, but since preserving foods has been dated back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, I plowed on.

Using my largest pasta pot with the insert, I placed the half-pint jars in boiling water for ten minutes, along with the rings. The lids with their little rings of sealing compound were washed with warm soapy water and then placed in a small pot with very hot but not boiling water. I removed the sterilized jars one at a time with the jar lifter (a miraculous device which actually does what it claims to do and is quite indispensable to jam-making). Using the funnel I filled each jar to the top leaving a half-inch of head space as stated in the recipes. Then, on goes the lid and the ring. Finally each jar is placed back into the boiling water for ten minutes. The jars are removed and set aside to cool. That’s when you step back and wait…for the magic ping. As the jars cool, a vacuum forms inside the jars and the lid, which had raised slightly in the center while being processed, becomes concave and makes a pinging sound as it snaps into place. That sound means you have successfully preserved your jam!

019a2dcaca3197b1429a1528d4052d54f711122f87As thrilling as hearing the ping was, cracking open a jar of it several days later and spreading it on a toasted English muffin was astonishing. I had made orange marmalade on my own. And, it was good. Really good. Passing out jars of my hard work was equally amazing. When returning the canning supplies to my friend, I bestowed upon her a jar of orange marmalade and a jar of grapefruit ginger marmalade, a slight variation of the Ina Garten recipe using grapefruits and crystalized ginger.

A few weeks later, I ordered my own set of canning supplies and then tackled strawberry preserves and strawberry-balsamic-black pepper preserves. When given a bag of garlic scapes, I made garlic scape-flavored vinegar, both white wine and apple cider varieties. 0135f7ef950e43082132349758335c6a75abccbdbcTwo weeks ago, thanks to my older daughter’s shopping spree at a farmer’s market in Pittsburgh, I pickled five quart jars of okra, something that any 01797a93804afc5198857faa3a39760ab2dfeb5e85transplanted Southerner would love to get their hands on!

Jam-making, as both Laurie Colwin and Ina Garten pointed out, is very satisfying. First of all, you know exactly what is inside that jar of jam or jelly as you spread it on your breakfast toast (or your pancakes if you are European). You can control the amount of sugar or use a sugar substitute if you are so inclined. You can create jam or jelly or marmalade out of any fruit that you can find at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. And, the bragging rights that go along with those pretty jars of jewel-colored yumminess are out of this world!011aa7150d939c85f369ca0b763049013d2a341adf_00001


Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Garten, Ina. “Anna’s Orange Marmalade.” Barefoot Contessa. Barefoot Contessa, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

“Historical Origins of Food Preservation.” National Center for Home Food Preservation. University of Georgia, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

A Love Letter to Laurie Colwin

Everyone has a list of people, either alive or deceased, that they would love to have dinner with. I’m sure there is a BuzzFeed list of the top candidates for those lists, chock-full of celebrities and famous people. For me, however, at the top of my list, is Laurie Colwin.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Colwin was a writer and foodie who left us with a small repertoire: three collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of essays on food, family, and entertaining. She died in 1992 at the far too young age of 48, leaving behind a husband, Juris, and an eight-year old daughter, Rosa. It’s that part that eats at me, the eight-year old daughter. I’ve had two eight-year old daughters in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what life would be like for them if I had not lived to see them become nine, or nineteen, or someday in the very near future, twenty-nine.

In the late 80’s, I moved from Louisiana to the Washington, DC, area, taking up residence in a high-rise apartment in Bethesda. Unsure of how I would afford both the sky-high rent and a parking spot in the basement garage, I sold my car before I moved, knowing that my new job was a fifteen minute walk from my future apartment. On the way home from work in the afternoon I would stop in the little shops and markets along the way as I was exploring and getting to know my new neighborhood. One of my favorites was a bookstore just a block from my apartment. They frequently had an outdoor table piled high with books for sale. That’s where I found Laurie Colwin.

laurie colwin books 2There was something about the cover of Home Cooking that made me pick it up. Much like Laurie Colwin who was one of a kind, the cover of Home Cooking (as well as its sequel) was taken from a monotype by artist Janet Yake. To create a monotype the artist first paints the image on a flat surface like glass or Plexiglas, and then while the paint is still wet, transfers the image to paper by hand by pressing or rubbing—producing a one of a kind print, not leaving much room for error.

That night, I read about half of Home Cooking in one sitting. I carried it to work with me the next day so I could read it while I ate my lunch at my desk. I was intrigued by her writing style, her homey attitude towards entertaining, and her very palpable love of her family. How I wished I could be invited to dine in her NYC apartment and sup on one of the dishes detailed in Home Cooking. I later discovered some of the essays found in her books originated as articles for Gourmet magazine. Again, at a used bookstore, I managed to hunt down several old issues with her work. Eventually I discovered the sequel, More Home Cooking, which was published after her death. Recently Laurie Colwin has been in the literary news, with the release of some of her work as e-books. I immediately purchased the e-book of Home Cooking, even though I have owned a print copy for over twenty years.

I know these two books very well; they are like old friends to me, friends I would gladly have over for a lovely cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. Each August, when I return to my classroom after a nice summer break, I begin literature class with my new 7th graders reading “Lemons and Limes” from More Home Cooking. It is the perfect example of descriptive writing, writing that truly appeals to the senses. As you read Colwin’s descriptions of the many things she does with lemons and the zest from their bright yellow peels, you can feel your mouth puckering, your tongue tingling. While the class discusses Colwin’s talented use of descriptive writing, we talk about their favorite foods and what their family dinners at home are like. It’s through these classroom discussions, under the guise of studying a piece of non-fiction literature, that they get to know me as a teacher and I get to know them as students. The fact that they also get to know Laurie Colwin is just a bonus.

I love trying to recreate the dishes from Colwin’s books. They aren’t so much recipes as they are narratives. Apparently, there are cooking clubs that meet periodically to cook and eat an entire meal from Colwin’s books. A cursory search on Google produces quite a list of articles and blog posts about Laurie Colwin’s writings. In her short life, she made quite an impact on many, some of whom weren’t even born when she died. And, she did that without a computer, a tablet, an iPhone, a show on the Food Network, or a blog.

It’s hard to imagine Laurie Colwin living and writing about food in today’s gourmand-crazy and technology-frenzied world. If you read even just one or two of her food essays you will see that she was a no-nonsense home cook, not a fancy haute cuisine multi-ethnic fusion type of chef. I read a 2014 article on the The New York Times website by Jeff Gordinier who interviewed Colwin’s daughter, now a grown-up foodie and writer herself:

“In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. ‘She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,’ Ms. Jurjevics said. ‘That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.’

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. ‘I wonder what she would have made of so many things,’ Ms. Jurjevics mused. ‘Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?’”

I’ve always imagined Colwin sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of steaming coffee and a yellow legal pad, writing away, while stopping periodically to stir something on the stove or to read a book to her daughter. So, it’s a little difficult to see her, she of the bread-baking, jam-making, beef-stewing variety, sitting hunched over a MacBook Pro, sipping a chai latte, tapping away at her latest novel or food essay. I have an easier time visualizing her blogging, casually spinning out one of her food stories, drawing us in, making us want to rush to our own kitchens and roast a chicken stuffed with a lemon.

Whenever I am writing about food, whether it is a restaurant meal or one I’ve prepared at home myself, I hear her voice in my head. I know, however, that what comes out of my printer is not even close to the quality of what she herself would have written.  She was a master story-teller; she brought you into her kitchen, or, as she recounts in Home Cooking, into her kitchen-less studio apartment during her early days on her own. Even without a kitchen she cooked and entertained regularly, cooking on a two-burner hotplate and draining pasta in her bathtub. I’ve been told by family and close friends that I am a good story-teller, so I keep trying to tell a food story the way she would have. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that, but until then, I will keep re-reading her stories, and as I write, I will keep listening to her voice.


Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 July 2015.

“Printmaking Methods.” Fitch-Febvrel Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.