By JAMES WEAR
I guess it’s been a good 25 years or more since I’ve had one of my mother’s homemade pickles or spooned out a bit of the jelly she would make from wild mustang grapes that we’d pick from the vines that grew along the fences on back country roads.
And I suppose it would be fair to say I didn’t truly appreciate the long hours she put into canning all those vegetables and fruits until I was older.
Recent posts by friends on Facebook and my wife’s rediscovered zeal for putting up the bounty from our garden reminded me of those days. Paula has canned before, but this year, perhaps because for the first time in our nearly 30 years of marriage we’ve managed to put in a garden that’s actually producing, her interest in the process has reached another level.
Over the years, I’ve known others who shared my mother’s passion for canning. Longtime Liberty Hill resident Dolly Knox mastered the art many years ago, and the late Chester Williams, who passed away just recently, come to mind.
Chester, who I worked alongside back in the 1990s, was well known for his backyard garden in downtown Liberty Hill, and after we got off work at 6 p.m. he’d head home, tend to his garden and then spend several more hours in the kitchen, often until midnight, putting up produce.
I don’t know how much he put up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t come close to the efforts of my mother, whose annual goal was to put up at least 100 quarts or pints of everything she could…enough to carry our family through the winter months when our diet revolved around those vegetables and the meat from a calf or hog we’d slaughter when the first blue norther would blow in.
Those days would find us up early and my brother and I would build a fire to heat up water in two old iron pots. Dad would take his .22, walk down to the barn where we had penned up a hog the evening before and fire a single shot between the animal’s eyes. The hog would drop and Dad would then plunge a sharp knife into its heart and allow the animal to bleed out. Then it became a “simple” matter of dragging the hog to a nearby tree where Dad would have rigged up a block and tackle and we’d hoist the hog up, above a 55-gallon barrel filled with the water from the iron pots.
Getting the water heated to just the right temperature was important, he told us, and he didn’t rely upon a thermometer. Instead, “Stick your finger in that water, boy…when you can keep it in there for the count of 10 before you hafta pull it out then you know it’s right.”
We then dipped the animal into the water and when the hair off the hide began to loosen, we’d pull it back out, lay it out on a makeshift table and scrape away. Once all the hair was gone, it was again time to pull the hog up into the air and Dad, with the knowledge he’d picked up from his father, continued the process of cutting the animal up.
By nightfall, the work had moved inside and it was usually 10 p.m. before we could call it a day. Much of the meat went into a freezer, some of it went to a smoke house.
Dad often shared with us memories of how he learned to butcher. It seems one night, when he was but seven years old, his father had a meat market in Andice and would process meat at night. One night, my grandfather cut his hand, badly, and couldn’t continue. He handed his knife to my father and held the lantern light as he coached dad through the process.
Back in those days, gardening and canning and butchering was perhaps a bit more serious than what we do nowadays. In those times, it was often a matter of survival.
“It’s what got our folks and others through the Great Depression,” said Maude Allen, an old friend of mine. Maude and her sister, Roberta Elmore, attended Florence High School with me and also grew up on a farm where they learned canning and gardening skills from their mother and grandmother and other relatives.
While recalling those days during a recent conversation, we agreed our children and grandchildren can’t hold the same appreciation for the farm life that we do and while it was a lot of work, there were also some fun times.
Maude, prompted by Roberta, recalled a day when their parents got into a debate about who could make the best peach preserves. Their father maintained his mother had the best recipe while their mother argued it was her mother who had the best. And so, on this particular day, they agreed to have a cookoff, so to speak…with the two sisters and their brother and an aunt to serve as judges.
Their dad went off to a hunting cabin on the ranch where he spent the day making his version of peach preserves while their mother stayed in her kitchen and worked away. At the end of the day, it was time for the judges’ decision…and all agreed, it was their dad’s version that won out. His secret ingredient? Maude said he placed a small bit of lemon peel in his preserves that gave them a slight edge.
Both Maude and Roberta continue to can, with Maude saying she still uses the recipe for bread and butter pickles that her mother used. Jellies produced in their kitchens often wind up as Christmas gifts for other members of the family.