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Bittersweet

July 23, 2014 | by

Gemeindebau_Hadikgasse_268-272_Stiege_11_-_Mosaik_Zwetschken_-_Richard_Ruepp_1953-54

Richard Ruepp, Plums, 1953-4

One might wonder at the wisdom of undertaking a batch of homemade jam on a ninety-degree day. But I think about it this way: when people actually canned fresh food to get through the winter, it all happened in the summer; hot weather is when you’re supposed to stand over a kettle stirring incessantly without air conditioning. 

Besides, I’ve recently come into a very large—tyrannically bountiful—number of plums, the result of a CSA share lent to me by some generous friends. Their family of four can eat a lot more fresh fruit than one smallish woman living alone. And although there are probably lots of things I could do with them, in my family there is a tradition of plum-jam-making.

Well, sort of. Plum jam was one of my grandfather’s specialties, along with the strips of discounted meat he prepared in his smoker, the icy “gelato” we made in the “electric” ice-cream maker (it was broken, and had to be cranked by hand), and the increasingly dubious loaves that came out of a yard-sale bread machine. While no one can fault the man’s zeal, his technique was, to say the least, idiosyncratic.

Because the plum tree in the backyard—overlooking a rubble pile, an old boat filled with pressure cookers, and a trailer—yielded a large crop of deliciously sweet, red fruit, there were always several spontaneous bouts of jam-making during our summer visits. For us children, that meant gathering the fallen plums off the ground. Later, we got to plunge our (unwashed) hands into the cooled, cooked (but unwashed) plums, and squeeze them to a pulp. My grandfather did not believe in what he termed “the germ theory.”

The resulting jam—unrefrigerated, it goes without saying, and not processed for sanitary storage—was beautiful to behold, but it was so tart that most of us found it inedible. My grandfather, however, feasted on it every morning, and would frequently shove a piece of jammy toast into our faces. “Plum jam!” he’d bark. “Taste it! It’s excellent!”

There is a picture of me and three younger cousins sitting on the roof of a shed under the plum tree in full fruit. Now my grandfather is long gone, and the branches of the family have fractured and ruptured in the sad way that families can. But there’s not a single one of us who would hear the words “plum jam” without knowing they were shorthand for about a million more, sweet and sour both. I am washing my hands and my plums, and I plan to add a good measure of sugar to my batch of jam. But the whole thing is a terrible, impractical idea, and that seems in the family spirit.

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