On a warm July day, my friend Jeanne and I stand side by side, in companionable silence. She and I are slicing strawberries, the juices staining our fingers red. The tips of our knives click on the cutting board. One more topped and sliced, ready. We are making jam.
Jeanne has come to my home to teach me how to can. Like generations of women before her, she learned from her mother how to stir fruits and sugar together, making preserves – and then seal them safely in glass jars. In the dead of winter, Jeanne can open her cupboards to find ruby strawberries gleaming in the darkness.
Like many of my generation, I had no idea how to do this. For most of my life I loved food, but I didn’t really know where it came from or who made it for me. The only cans I opened were tins with manufacturers’ labels purchased at the grocery store. Some packaged foods contain so many preservatives that it seems they could survive for a hundred years with the same over-salty flavour.
Four years ago when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I began to examine the label of every food. I found that I didn’t recognize (or couldn’t pronounce) most of the ingredients that I would have put into my body before without a thought. I began to eat closer to the ground; I used whole foods and cooked meals from scratch. Within a few months, commercial jams tasted too sweet to me. Canned green beans became an abomination. Give me six glorious weeks of eating corn on the cob when it’s ripe and ready, and I’ll wait all year in anticipation, rather than ever eating again from a bag of frozen corn kernels.
I still eat in season, mostly. Now that we have a garden, my husband and I love feeding our baby daughter raspberries right off the bush. We pick the tiny alpine strawberries nestled among green leaves and pop them in her mouth, waiting to see her expression. The mint leaves we brush with our feet release their scent and leave me dreaming of mint jelly with lamb in the winter.
In our sunny kitchen, Jeanne teaches me how to sterilize the jars and boil them until they are sealed. I dream of pickled okra, tomato sauce and brandied cherries this winter. Making my own food brings me closer to my great-grandmother who knew how to do this – long before there were packaged foods that contained gluten where it should never have been.
Shauna James Ahern’s and Daniel Ahern’s new cookbook is Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, published by John Wiley & Sons. Their blog is Glutenfreegirl.com.