Water boiling over, sticky slop on the floor. Green fingernails, scorched syrup. Lids and rings all over the place. It’s canning time.
This time of year always takes me back in time to my arrival in Lost Nation as a bride, trying to learn the finer arts of homemaking and household skills.
My mother-in-law, Betty, whom I was anxious to impress, had mentioned her fondness for pickled beets early in the summer. I dutifully requested her recipe and tacked it to the cupboard, weeded the beets, watched them fill out, and when they looked as if they might as well be ripe, pulled them from the ground.
Betty’s five-step recipe seemed simple enough: “Peel beets, slice, and put in jars,” was the first brief instruction. Eager to please and thinking how delighted she would be, I spent almost the entire day peeling the raw beets with a potato peeler. I sliced them on a large board with a cleaver, grunting to push the blade through three-inch spheres that bled beet juice all over the counter and stained my hands purple for a week.
“Put spices into cheesecloth bag and simmer syrup for half hour,” the recipe read next. I couldn’t find any cloth on our cheese, but I found some dark blue T-shirt knit that I figured would work just as well. I put the spices into it and just to be on the safe side, I sewed around all sides of it. No spices drifted into the syrup, but I found bits of cinnamon, allspice, and salt in my sewing machine for months afterward.
I dropped the spice bag into the boiling syrup, then watched the liquid turn purplish-blue from the T-shirt knit. Well, it’ll blend in, I thought, looking at my purple hands.
The next instruction was to “Pack jars.” I took the large discs of raw beets and quartered them all, sending purple triangles flying all over the kitchen as the cleaver crunched through. Then I packed them as tightly as possible into the cute little jars I had just purchased.
“Pour syrup over beets and seal,” was the next terse directive. I picked up the pan of syrup, held it about a foot above the tiny jar, and poured. The thin stream of purplish-blue ran down the side of the pan and between the counter and the stove, leaving a blue stain on the linoleum.
By now I was exasperated. How could a simple recipe for pickled beets be this difficult? I needed a funnel, which I didn’t have, but I congratulated myself when I cleverly folded a piece of shirt cardboard into one and — aha! — it worked. Flushed with success, I plucked the lids and rings from the pan where they had been boiling for the last hour and ceremoniously topped the jars. I left the rings loose because I remembered my science lesson about heated air expanding and I knew for sure that I didn’t want my jars to explode in the boiling water bath. “Bring to boil and process five minutes,” were the final instructions. I put the jars into the cold water, turned on the heat, and sat down for a leisurely perusal of the newspaper.
A half hour later, I was startled to attention by the hissing of water steaming off the stove. Boiling furiously, purplish-blue liquid was flipping over the side of the canner by the tablespoonful. Had it been five minutes? I looked at the clock. No mistaking it. I hurriedly removed the jars with my new handy-dandy jar remover, noticing that a good half of the liquid was missing from each jar. Must have evaporated, I thought.
I wiped the sticky purple water off the jars and arranged them attractively on an embroidered tea towel. I congratulated myself privately when my husband came home and said it looked as if I’d had a productive day. I arranged the jars of pickled beets on a shelf of the back room cupboard and soon forgot about them.
Sometime in late October that year, Betty was enjoying supper with us. I reached way over to serve her roast beef and accidentally dropped it in her cup, splashing coffee all over her glasses and blouse, so maybe her joy was not profound. But she was a good sport about my clumsiness.
“Say,” she said enthusiastically once we had wiped off all the coffee splotches, “don’t you think those pickled beets you put up would be ready by now?”
I brightened. “Why, I think so,” I replied, hurrying out to bring a jar back into the kitchen and setting it in front of her. She tilted her head back and peered through the bottom of her glasses, looking quizzically at the jar.
“They certainly are a rich color,” she said finally. I began to feel uneasy.
“Yes, we had really good beets this year,” I replied lamely, popping the lid off the jar. I selected a pretty glass dish, spooned out some beets, and arranged the small triangles.
I set the dish in front of Betty with the flourish of one who has just presented the kingdom with an heir. She pressed her fork into a triangle and gingerly set the morsel into her mouth. There was a crunch, her teeth slid sideways, and she removed something into her napkin.
“How long did you cook these before you put them into the jars?” she asked, her eyes wide.
“Cook them? You mean you’re supposed to cook them first?” I asked in astonishment, embarrassed almost to tears. My face turned the color of the jar as I realized all my effort had gone for naught. I thought of all those nasty jars of beets in the back room, mocking me. I thought of all the time those beets had taken from my life. I thought of every murderous torture I could inflict upon the beet world. In fact, the next day I did indeed throw out the whole batch, had a good cry, and then found the whole issue hilarious.
Silly Me! How was I supposed to know enough to cook the beets until tender so the skins slip right off and they slice into the jars easily? How was I supposed to know the rings should tighten snugly on the lids so the liquid remains in the jar? Why didn’t the recipe tell me to put hot syrup into hot jars full of hot beets and then put the hot jars into hot water? I admit Silly Me probably would not have paid attention anyway. But I learned to ask the experts. When I found out my friend Karen was canning tomatoes, I asked her if I could help so I could learn how.
Betty learned to expect a surprise or two while visiting us, but her good-natured sense of humor kept her coming back to see us, especially after her grandchildren were born. Even after the beet fiasco, she still accepted a dinner invitation in good faith. I say faith because, God love her, she knew in time I would get the hang of things.
Christine Gilroy is a retired Central DeWitt High School language arts and