If I ever have a garden again, the first thing I'll plant is black currant shrubs. A glut of the berries in July is a blue-ribbon problem. I'd gather them in greying popular fruit baskets to make the Cassis Jelly recipe on page 231 of Saving the Season. According to a note on the page, I made it first on July 24, 2013 — a Wednesday. My muslin jelly bag is permanently stained an inky black purple like the colour of a new tattoo. The flavour of berries, citrus, and herbs is a palate stunner. It's got pucker. Spreading it thick on toasted sourdough with melting cultured butter is a pleasure. Eating it standing barefoot in dewy grass is even better. Cassis jelly is a country good morning.
"Recipes need stories," writes Kevin West. Now you know why I like the book. It's made by a writer in no big hurry. To say it's about preserving is not the half of it.
Like a Tennessee Waltz quilt, West stitches together recipes for Sunshine Pickles and Peach Jam with essays on a Shenandoah Valley road trip and the sensual vegetable portraits of Charles Jones. There are lines of poetry from Pablo Neruda, "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees."
On almost every page, there's a new seduction. "Lemon verbena and sweet wine in the first variation provide weightless layers of flavor, akin to the translucent atmospherics in a Turner painting," he writes about Apricot Jam with Honey and Lemon Verbena. Threading a homely craft to a master painter is the work of a writer who embraces culture with warmth and generosity.
The headnotes are like cocktails before dinner, with nice snacks. A space to build appetite and nurture a connection with the reader-cook. West delivers technique with a side of charm.
In the intro for Zucchini Dill Spears, he recalls something his mom said about growing zucchini that will bring a smile to a gardener's face. "After you pick a plant clean and walk away, you can glance back over your shoulder and see new ones that already need picking." Any opportunity to tie the kitchen to the garden is seized. "We are saving, even in our urban kitchens, a sense of the agricultural cycle," he writes in an essay on Edna Lewis.
There's a photo of seven-year-old West holding a flat of sun-warm crimson strawberries on page 52. Smiling for his mom behind the camera. The two of them just back from picking. He's a wholesome vision of childhood in worn jean coveralls and no shirt.
I go to the book mostly for jam, jelly, and marmalade. My passion. Because it's made without commercial pectin. I like the challenge. The cook must consider the season's imprint on the fruit's fragrance and taste. Or, as West says plainly, "Getting it right each time is different."
Maybe it's owing to his Southern roots, but West excels at making introductions. We meet June Taylor, a jam-maker he calls an "archeologist of pre-industrial country life." To get a sense of her obsession, Taylor labels her preserves according to fruit varietal. And another California jam-maker, Robert Lambert, says, "I don't want to run a business…I want to make stuff." (If there was ever a mantra for my working life, that's it.) If you need to ask how much their jam costs, you don't know a stick about what goes into making it this way. But for the record, it's a lot and not near enough.
West and his friends "put up" in small batches. This is not your family's all-day-by-the-bushel-canning-bonanza. Those days are mostly past. But the photo of Ada Mae Houston's root cellar on page 421 will stir nostalgia for that home-grown abundance.
The cookbook's been open on my kitchen table while Mason jars made a racket in a boiling water bath, and a trail of sweat ran down the small of my back. And I've sat and read it for the learning. There's joy in it, and not just for the cook. We're friends if it's in your collection.
There are homespun innovations. West suggests lining the bottom of a water bath with ring lids instead of a rack to raise the jars off the direct heat. And he fills a Ziploc bag with brine to use as a weight for a crock of dill pickles in case it springs a leak.
West would be eyeing the ring-bound books in your grandmother's kitchen for inspiration. Mrs. Dorsey Brown's Green Tomato Pickle is a church-lady recipe from a St. Thomas parish cookbook near Baltimore. And the Orgeat, or sweet almond milk, has roots in a 19th-century cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan.
Last week I added more 'to-make' tabs for Cherry Preserves with Red Currants and Piquant Pears with Bay Leaf and Black Pepper.
The book is crafted with Stahl house care. Modern Americana with its heart in California. I could take it from the preserving section and squeeze it between Zuni and Chez Panisse Cooking on the shelf. Where it sits in my heart. West wrote the book in the Hollywood Hills in a place called Greenvalley. Take me there.
West writes about a friend's cookbooks: "What distinguishes Ziedrich's two Joys are the intangible qualities of ambition and authority, traits common to all enduring cookbooks." An apt counter-narrative for much in our high-speed machine-made world. Clear through to the end, he delivers. The Epilogue is a solid reference section. My three-word blurb: — endearing and enduring. Saving the Season is a book to pass through generations.
The brilliant pop-art strawberry is from Jay Heins at Numen Communications. He's art directing on the cookbook posts. What a relief to focus on the words. And to collaborate with a talented, creative human.
Less is more for me these days. I'll be posting every two or three weeks about a cookbook.
I went back and forth on the music. Settled on the new and the old. I could serve Steve Winwood in so many ways — the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic — but I chose Blind Faith. An extraordinary musician right from the start.
© strawberry by eva.yuna via Freepik.
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