Life Preserver

By Stefani X. Austin 
Photography by Stefani X. Austin

“You know they sell that stuff at the grocery store,” my husband says with a smirk. “Whole shelves full.”

I don’t dignify this with an answer because I know he’s not serious. He’s baiting me—trying to get me to climb onto the worn soapbox and deliver my near-famous sermon on how food preservation saves the soul, not just the harvest. I can’t oblige just now; I’ve got a pot of boiling, ruby-red plum jelly on the stove and three little helpers underfoot.


In theory, though, he has a point. Just a few miles down the road, I could pick up a jar of any sort of jelly imaginable—strawberry, peach, boysenberry, even guava or jalapeño. My late great-grandmother, Momo, at whose feet I learned the art of jelly making, would be awestruck by the rows of glistening exotic concoctions available today. But I don’t go near the stuff. Whatever’s in those jars wouldn’t be nearly as good as what comes out of our own kitchen.

It isn’t that our jelly is superior in taste—though it’s very good, if I do say so. It’s that jelly isn’t just jelly in this house. Here, it’s ceremony, rite, tradition.

I pour the jelly into hot jars and show my sons how to insert the lids into the rings and twist them on tightly. The jars boil in their hot water bath before we transfer them to cool on a towel laid over the counter. Then we sip lemonade and patiently wait to hear the familiar clink that declares our jelly is not only safely sealed, but that this moment—with all of us here, working side by side—is preserved for another day.

While we wait, I tell my sons about Momo, how she made this exact jelly and how I spent summers running barefoot under her pine trees, red dirt squishing through my toes. I tell them how I dug my first potato out of that red dirt, and how much it surprised me to discover that potatoes didn’t really come from a grocery store. My boys know these stories well, and they know and love Momo, too, though they can’t remember meeting her. For a little while she is here with us again.

When the jelly jars have cooled, they’ll go into the pantry—next to the salsa we made a couple of weeks ago and what’s left of the apple butter put up last fall. In the freezer are jars of pesto made from basil that my boys planted, nurtured and harvested in our own backyard. They are so proud of that pesto—of having provided something for our table, themselves.

Next to the pesto are the purple hull peas that we carried home from our trip to my grandmother’s house. Each time I cook a batch of those peas, I relive the day we sat on her porch and she taught my boys how to shell. I can see their brows furrowed in concentration and their purple-stained fingers coaxing peas out of the hulls. I can hear the peas plink-plonk into the pans and the stories Granny shared about hard days picking peas in the hot sun, and cool nights shelling them at the drive-in. In those days, summer was a race to save as much food as possible for the winter ahead—neither a second, nor a pea wasted.

For Granny and Momo, preserving the harvest meant their family would make it to the next growing season. For us, it means something different. Capturing these moments and filling our shelves and freezer with the work of these hands mean that our family’s memories and traditions will endure to the next generation. It keeps us knit together in a way that only food can.

And, with a little luck, it means that one day my sons will be the ones standing in their own kitchens, passing stories and history to rapt little ears by way of plum jelly, salsa and pesto. You just can’t buy that at the grocery store.