What the [Bleep!] was I thinking?

Week 63

What the [BLEEP!] Was I Thinking?

Canning and Writing Conundrums

I blame the tomatoes.

Some years ago, I grew the “poisonous” fruit in a garden at the top of a two-tiered yard. I grew all the varieties at one time or another, searching for that one high-producer that would keep us in tomato sauces for at least a year: Big Boys and Girls™, Romas and far too many of the all-but-useless-for-sauce cherries. I battled hungry squirrels, rabbits and blossom rot. I dusted, I fertilized, I weeded, all with mixed results. The fruit I couldn’t use due to animal or blight’s interference, I tossed into a patch of ground cover we called the “green uglies”: a variety of evergreen that spread like a virus and smelled like cat pee.For some reason, with as many as eighteen plants, I never gathered enough tomatoes to meet our needs. Late August and early September found me trekking the 40+ miles to a farm market for bushel/boxes of tomatoes that I promptly cored and froze for future use.

Then, one year, all those cast-asides in the green uglies decided to grow rogue. I had my own bushels to harvest and process. Far too many fruits for my freezer, if I ever wanted to serve my family anything other than tomatoes and tomatoes and tomatoes again.

It was about this time that, on a humid Saturday night, I first heard Garrison Keillor extol the virtues of canning*. His stories of canning in the Midwest and its importance to the economy of households made me laugh. And he made me think. I wanted all those benefits of good canning culture for myself and my family. I wanted to learn to can.

And I did. Every year since, I have canned tomatoes. Since I am no master gardener of tomatoes and we have moved three times since that epiphany, I cannot count on the bounty of my home gardens. I am still beholden to farm markets, no matter the distance. We’re still breaking in a new garden space in our present home of two years, so I currently drive 45 minutes to another state for my bushels of redness, but the canning goes on. Every year, I gather, gouge out the core, slit the skin, drop the tomatoes into my largest pot of boiling water, fetch them out again after a Ball’s Blue Book prescribed time, shock them in ice (of which there is never enough, unless one raids the freezer bins at the grocery and gas stations at least twice), peel them and start the chopping and/or processing for the canning jars I have sterilized in a dishwasher cycle. If I am putting up sauces, there are other vegetables to chop or shred. This includes no end of onions, nicked fingers and tears. And that’s only the preparation.

It is approximately at this point that my knees ache. My back starts to resent bending over the pots. My arms object to leaning on bowl edges as I strip the slick and stubborn skin off the pulp. The roar of the blender liquefying those skins for additional sauce deafens my already ringing ears. The boiling water and the hot jars might make for a nice facial, but they also raise the kitchen temperature to the point I sweat in place I had forgotten I could sweat. It is at this point, that the annual thought occurs to me:

What the [BLEEP!] was I thinking?

The same voice every year (I suspect Mrs. Should Be here) intones that I’m too old for this crap. My body can’t (or shouldn’t) take standing on concrete floor with the minimal padding of linoleum and 2.5 x 4’ by ½ inch foam rubber pad for the eight to ten hours this madness requires. And I still have one or two quarts of chopped tomatoes canned from the year before. Why put up more of the same or possibly something different? Some new recipe that intrigues me? Why bother at all?

And yet I do. Every. Single. Year.

Now, I will admit I canned more in those first few years, when I had a larger kitchen and daughters still at home who could be “persuaded” to help. But the urge and the need is there, every year. I still get the bushel of tomatoes, along with half to a full bushel of bell peppers every year, but the canned output has grown less. These days, my output is what I estimate my dear long-suffering husband and I will use. Any extra tomato, chopped veggie and herb gets bagged and frozen for future use. I’d like to think I’ve learned economy and flexibility. Mrs. Should Be would say I’ve grown old and lazy (the old biddy does like to have it both ways, drat her).

However, I still reach that point of wondering why I do all of it. Why torture myself for what feels like minimal reward? Why go the whole distance to sealed Ball canning jars with Kerr lids for a winter’s meal? Why not run the food processor and knives ragged prepping, then freeze the lot and deal with the watery results later? I have a clear choice: take the processed goodies and bag them for the freezer or forge ahead to what I wanted in the first place: healthy, canned goods I won’t have to pay for this winter.

Oddly enough – and I suppose this speaks to my overloaded brain – it wasn’t until this year that I realized this gung-ho then whoa approach to canning reflected my approach to other things. I’ve started many a needlework project with gusto only to come midpoint and want it done already to the point I stay up until the wee hours to finish it; and then suffer for the lack of sleep.

And my writing. The canning conundrum is also my writing conundrum.

The story comes. The characters talk to me. The plot keeps me awake at night, so I begin to write with a convert’s fervor. Then, my hands cramp, my eyes blur, and halfway through (to date, the average distance is twelve chapters in), the canning question comes to me: What was I thinking?

What earthly use to anyone are any of the words and thoughts I’ve spent hours pounding into my laptop? I can always stop, as I have with the canning process, bag it all and freeze it for another time.

The danger, though, is that what comes out of that deep freeze is denatured. Changed. Sometimes for the better, but not always. And restoring it to what I’d like to think it was is more work, harder work. On the other hand, time and distance and that extra work can produce something wonderful. Something unimagined in that initial offensive, something much, much better.

I’ll admit, this is a process for everybody. I envy the authors, published or not, who can sit down and write as a daily habit. I admire those who set daily or weekly quotas and meet them. I’ve tried it and The CPF is the result, written in three months. But my life and those in it do not seem to permit such indulgences (or won’t, until the miraculous time that I publish and actually earn money for the writing). So I do my best. And yet the conundrum is still there. Write I daily, weekly or when the characters scream so loudly I can’t sleep or think any more, I work furiously up to that point.

Then it all stalls. I ache. My tukhas groans from having to sit yet again in a perfectly nice chair, but shouldn’t I be tending to that load of laundry, that knitted doll without arms or that patch of weeds that was supposed to be my herb garden? I look at the chicken scratch on the computerized page and wonder.

The choice is the same: set it aside and come back with the hope for that writing not guaranteed to be quality but of

quantity to suffice; or forge ahead and finish the damned thing.

I have no answers. No formula, no resolution to this dilemma. I make the choice. I have to, but it is not always the same. And what it all means in the Great Scheme of Things, I haven’t a clue. But I do know I cannot do otherwise. Not now, perhaps not ever.

And I still blame the tomatoes.

  • Keillor, Garrison. "Ball Jars” Mother Father Uncle Aunt. Minnesota Public Radio, Minneapolis, recorded in Muncie, Indiana 15 March 1997.

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