The Universal Notebook: How to make strawberry jam

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My lovely wife Carolyn makes the world’s best strawberry jam.

I’m sure she learned it from her mother, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she were born knowing how to make jam. It just seems to come so naturally to her. I loved watching her make it when she was a college girl in her 20s, and I love helping her make it now that she is a busy professional woman and grandmother.

In recent years, with our daughters all grown and out of the house and Carolyn busy at work, the task of picking the strawberries has increasingly fallen to me, an under-employed writer with time (and berry stains) on his hands. I pick at Maxwell’s in Cape Elizabeth or Gillespie’s in New Gloucester, sometimes both. This year, alerted by Carolyn that “the strawberries are peaking,” I dashed out to Cape and, on my hands and knees, picked a 13-pound flat of dark, ripe berries that cost me $31.

That evening, despite a long day at work and several hours of reluctant new car shopping, Carolyn tied on her apron around 8:30 and set about making jam for the year. Having retrieved the jam jars from the basement and purchased the Sure-Jell premium fruit pectin, sugar, and new jar lids earlier in the day, my job was to hull, halve and squash the berries. Carolyn boiled the glass jars to sterilize them, measured out berries, sugar and pectin, and cooked the sweet, fragrant mixture, adding a pat of butter to keep the foam down.

The part I like best is watching Carolyn ladle and pour the hot jam into jars, carefully topping up each, placing the lids and rings on top, and wiping down the burning, sticky hot jars with a wet paper towel. There is a level of attention and concentration about this step that takes her out of herself, this selfless being earnestly making jam to make me happy. She then sets the jars upside down on a newspaper on the counter so the tops will seal, checking the tops occasionally to see if they are ready.

My first taste of the new jam is from Carolyn’s finger, but there is always about half a jar extra that does not get sealed. By the time I help clean up, the extra jam has cooled enough to be spread on a toasted English muffin and then a plain donut to be lovingly consumed as a bedtime snack.

Carolyn remembers when her grandmother made jam, baked bread and churned butter on the family farm in Freeport. As recently as the early 1960s, her grandparents grew much of their own food and kept a cow for milk. As 21st century suburbanites, strawberry jam is one of few foods (pesto being another) that we put up for ourselves. It doesn’t just taste good, it feels good.

The new jars of jam get stored away on the top shelf of a kitchen cupboard and along about February I start worrying that we’re not going to make, that we are going to run out before the new crop is ready. Somehow, however, Carolyn’s timing is usually perfect. This year I used the last of the 2011 jam just a week before she made the 2012 jam.

Now, thanks to my delicious wife, I can once again look forward to the sweet taste of summer in the depths of winter.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.