I Do

topperWe attended a beautiful outdoor wedding yesterday. Watching the happy couple exchange their vows, you also know that months of planning and thousands of details went into this moment. They seem calm, and maybe a little relieved, to have arrived here. Basking in their glow, I remember our wedding nearly 30 years ago and the bubble I seemed to float in that day.

We planned a summer wedding, the date selected so that both my future sisters-in-law would be able to travel between babies. No matter that late July in Kentucky would be hot and humid. Like most weddings, the preparation expanded to fill all of the available months between engagement and ceremony. So many decision to make! And an odd feeling of pressure to “do it right” though I suspect that was self-imposed. Find the right clothes, venues, menus, china, silver and crystal. Alternately wondering why the heck I didn’t have a hope chest and an heirloom wedding gown, and whether we could just elope to escape all the complications.

But the day finally came, family and friends gathered from around the country. Because the decisions had already been made, there was a delightful feeling of everything in place. And that brought the calm. Calm enough to smile, to chat with every guest, to laugh as my husband wore goofy glasses for the cake cutting, calm enough to enjoy the day. And at the core, I felt confident that the two of us were ready to take on our life’s great adventure.

Jelly

Black-Raspberry-PintWhen I see tables full of fruit at the farmers’ market, I remember working side-by-side with my dad, over steaming pots, to put up jars of jelly. Racing the clock, and the inevitable thickening from fruit pectin, to decant the beautiful hot liquid into jars so it could cool and set. As a chemical engineer, jelly-making suited my dad. His exacting standards, measurement, and process achieved a consistently high-quality result. And you could eat it!

Dad brought home impossible quantities of black raspberries. Not for our cereal, these precious gems were for jelly. The berries were washed and very gently crushed – enough to release the juice but not break the bitter seeds – then the pulp was spooned into a cheesecloth bag, tied shut and suspended from a rod so that the juice could collect into a bowl below. For a least a day, the bag would hang untouched because squeezing the bag would make the juice cloudy.

Before we started cooking, we washed the jelly jars, lids and rings. Dad was particular – the jars needed to be clear. Some years, Ball jars were available in a quilted version which Dad did not like because that glass made it harder to see the translucent feature he sought in his jelly. And it was important that the judges be able to see that beautiful color. Yes, Dad entered his jellies in the Kentucky State Fair – and he won. For 25 years he was, I’m sure, hated by the other competitors, because he won a lot. So each year, I wanted to do a good job, and help him put the best product up for judging.

The clean jars, lids and rings went into our largest pot to be boiled and sterilized. On the next burner was the jelly pot, where Dad added the juice, cane sugar, and a packet of Sure-Jell. The mixture was brought to a roiling boil, and stirred constantly for a few minutes. Then Dad would pull the pot off the stove and let it rest for just a moment while he skimmed the foam off the top with a large spoon.

Hot jelly cannot rest in the pan. As it cools, it sets up, so we moved quickly. My job was to fish out a jar from the boiling pot and set it in on the counter. He’d pour the hot jelly through a special canning funnel into the jar, filling it to an exact mark, and  removing any bubbles. I’d set a sterilized lid and ring down and he’d cap the jar, screwing the lid on tight. Soon, the pot was empty, and two dozen jars of jelly were lined up, glowing like jewels.

As the jars cooled, the lids would pop, indicating a seal was made. Dad would inspect each one by holding it up to the light, checking for clear and consistent rich color. He’d affix adhesive typed labels. One or two jars would be set aside for the fair, and the rest we would store. Black raspberry was always my favorite; a rare berry, and a tender jelly that would melt onto your bread. We also made other jellies (red raspberry, cherry, grape, apple, mint), so you can imagine that we always had a lot of jelly at home. We also gave jelly as gifts at Christmas, nestling jars into red woven baskets with Easter grass and ribbon. Somehow, all of the jelly would get used before the next summer when we’d do it all over again.

I confess, you’ll find store-bought jelly in my pantry. And though it is a far cry from what we made together, I’ll spread a little raspberry jam on my toast today for you Dad.

Driving

gearshiftOne of the most romantic images in American culture is someone speeding off into the sunset in a convertible. Freedom. In our car culture, getting your drivers’ license is a rite of passage. Driving gives you the ability to go somewhere – fast – without your parents. But when you’re the parent, it’s the last thing you want.

As our kids approached 16, I harbored the vain hope that they may not need to drive because public transit is so practical in Chicago. But they were not to be denied. However limited their access would be to our one car, however terrifying Chicago traffic could be, they were determined to learn. They took drivers’ education – both classroom meetings and road experience, but then they had to start all over again, because we have a car with a stick shift. In order to pass a driving test, they’d have to do it in our car.

We spent countless Sundays doing laps around the emptiest parking lot I could find in Chicago, learning how to shift gears and not kill the engine, then trying to do it without hopping. Practicing parking, backing up, and not hitting anything. Then we crept out on the road where they had to get used to taking off from a green light in the correct gear (see “killing the engine”), remembering to signal, and anticipating what other cars, pedestrians and bikers are going to do. Chicago is pretty flat, so it took a while to find the road feature that most stick drivers fear: a stop on an incline. You’re at the light, a car is behind you and you have to smoothly accelerate while not rolling backward. An agonizing moment for both driver and teacher.

I realize that I made driving look altogether too easy over the years. While the kids were in the back seat looking out the windows, they had no idea how many decisions I was making; how I had to consider physics, psychology and navigation on a simple trip to the store. So part of my teaching approach was to speak all of my driving thoughts out loud to illustrate for my kids what they needed to be thinking, looking at, seeing, and doing at all times. I’d annotate while I was driving -“I”m depressing the clutch and touching the accelerator lightly”, “I’m seeing that man step off the curb even though it’s not his turn, but I’m letting him cross”. It’s possible my kids still hear my voice when they’re merging into traffic, or completing a parallel parking maneuver.

Our daughter just reached a new milestone – she bought her own car. It’s used and has a manual transmission, a lot of miles, and a working radio. Before she headed to camp this morning, she rolled down the window and waved. Thoughts of her in a child’s car seat flash though my mind, but she puts it in first gear, and away she goes.

Legacy

IMG_1370Every bite of food at my mom’s house tastes delicious. Soup or stew; deli sandwiches on rye with a crispy pickle; bright crunchy salads; moist chicken or pork or beef. I’m drooling as I arrive, eager to settle in at the table and eat. Soon I’m cooing like The Galloping Gourmet, my mouth too full to speak. Mom uses fresh ingredients and skilled technique, seasoned skillets and vintage pans with copper bottoms. But her secret ingredient is memory.

The meals conjure up my childhood where I would perch on a stool to chop vegetables, then help sauté them in butter or oil. After a few minutes, Mom would take the wooden spoon from me to “feel” whatever was in the pan and decide if it was proceeding correctly.  I learned to mix, knead, poach, and bake. Usually stirring by hand, but pulling out the huge stand mixer if we were whipping egg whites into meringue. Sometimes Mom’s mom was visiting and she’d occupy my stool in the kitchen. Grandma would shave impossibly thin slices of cabbage for slaw, or cut corn off the cob. Corn fritters, noodle soup, slaw – all dishes Grandma loved and probably made for my mom growing up.

When I cook, I’m channeling my mom, trying to recreate not only the taste, but the moment in time. A plate of corn fritters, fried apples, pork sausages, and sliced tomatoes is a muggy summer evening; I’m  cooling down with a tall glass of iced tea while the butter melts on the fritters. My family likes this meal, but the side dish of flashback may be lost on them.

My daughter and I visited mom last week. Using a small pink bowl, mom transformed an egg and a cup of flour into delicious noodles. Stirring, kneading, and rolling out the dough until it was the right thickness. Letting the dough rest, then rolling and slicing. These lovely noodles were the base of a wonderful beef stew, and they were the star. I hope my daughter was paying attention so she can carry this tradition into a fourth generation. So, no pressure.

Not all memorable food has a long pedigree. A favorite birthday pie, or simple dish from a magazine can become enshrined if you make it again and again. My kids sometimes ask for the recipe of a dish they grew up with: chili over spaghetti, linguini with clam sauce, carrot cake. I’m happy to share and wonder if they too read the subtext between the ingredients.