Strawberry season, in my family, is a religious thing. We pick strawberries in late June every year, all together, no matter what.
The day starts early with old tee shirts and stained shorts. We slather on sunscreen and my mother always wears her old pink bandana cap—the one from the 70s with the pink and white tye-dye and the tiny beak of a brim. We pick up Genie, my mom’s best friend, at the coffee shop, grab a cup and drive out to the fields. We bring the stained green quart containers from last year—yes, my mom saves them—and we check in with the girl under the white popup tent to get five wooden flats. We pick until our fingers are stained and our lips are red and we are practically sick with stolen berries, but my mother makes sure we get forty quarts at the very least to bring back.
The drive home is quiet; we all know the hard work is ahead. At the kitchen counter we lay out our haul and everyone takes their spots. My father pulls the greens from the berry heads, my sister washes, I measure. My mother pulls out the big pots for jam—the jars in a water bath on the back burner and the sugar and the berries bubbling up front. We make batches of 6 cups berries, 4 cups sugar, never more. Big batches are too risky; there’s always a chance someone will get distracted, over cook, under cook, burn. We all know the signs to watch for—the sweet red liquid turning viscous and sheeting off the spoon. Test plates litter the counter—drop a dollop on, wait a minute, see how it cools. Runny jam is acceptable. Rock hard jam is not as my mother discovered her first summer ever making it—she thought the texture had to be like jam when the mixture was hot. We make pint upon pint of jam, to last all year on toast and in peanut butter sandwiches and stirred into yogurt for dessert.
But jam’s not the only job. We’re also putting up berries for winter: slicing them, sprinkling them with sugar, spooning them into freezer jars. We use granulated sugar but only the tiniest bit—1 tablespoon will release the juice from a whole gallon, maybe more. After a half hour or so of sitting, the berries are in a bright red pool of juice, intoxicating with their aroma of hot summer and ripe fruit.
Then there are dishes, the washing of pot after pot. Jam sticks to the counters and the stovetop and every spoon and runs down the sides of jars. It is on our brows and in our hair, and the kitchen is unbearably hot.
If we’re lucky we finish by late afternoon, in time for a swim in the bay. We peel off layers of pink stained jean and jersey and trade them for suits and towels and pack into the car again. My mother runs in to check that no jam is burning, that the stove has, in fact, been turned off. She rushes back out and we drive off: down to the cold salty water of the bay. Then we jump in and give thanks: for a good season, for another year all together, and for the satisfaction of hard work and sweet berries on an early summer day.
LIZ PIERSON'S STRAWBERRY JAM
My mom has been making this jam for years. One note: We do not slice the berries, and I think this is key. It makes for big globs of berries in the finished jam, a texture that I adore.
6 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
4 cups granulated sugar
Get out a large, non-reactive pan, put the berries in, and crush them gently with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon. Cook over medium-low heat for about five minutes, stirring frequently, until they begin to release their juices. Add the sugar and stir until it's dissolved. Turn up the heat to medium-high and bring the berries and sugar to a light boil.
Cook, stirring frequently, until the jam sheets off the spoon. When you first start cooking the jam, pull your spoon out and watch the way the liquid drips off of it. The drops will be light and syrupy at first. As the jam continues to boil, the drops will get heavier, and eventually, they will come together to form a fluid sheet as they come off the spoon. This is the jellying point.
Spoon out a little bit of jam onto a plate and let it cool. If it has a good consistency, pour it immediately into sterile jars. (If not, continue cooking until you feel it has the thickness you want.) Wipe the rims with a cloth dipped in boiling water and seal the jars with sterile lids. Check the seal by leaving the jars to cool on a dishtowel overnight—if they didn't seal, there will be juice oozing out.
Once it's put up, the jam is good for at least a year.
This piece first aired in June, 2017.