The calendar says that March 21 is the first day of spring, and while that’s a week away from the time I’m writing this, there are other signs that spring is here.
One of the first signs of spring for me is the biannual ritual of changing the clocks. While I love the longer daylight, messing with circadian rhythms twice a year seems cruel. And have you ever told a canine they have to wait an hour for dinner? In the fall, they are all for eating an hour early, but when their normal dinnertime rolls around, their internal clocks tell them it is dinnertime all over again.
But there may be hope. Today the US Senate unanimously passed (imagine that!) a bill that will keep us on Daylight Savings Time all year round. It seems even congressmen dislike the whiplash of changing the clocks. But don’t get excited yet—the bill still has to go to the House of Representatives and, if successful, to the president’s desk.
Another sign of spring on the central CA coast is the return of the strawberry man. The fertile Oxnard plane is a few miles away from us. Here luscious, bright-red, plump-all-the-way-up-to-the-stem strawberries are grown. The strawberry man sells these daily picked gems out of the back of a converted pickup truck, and while they are pricey, they are worth every penny. John bought a half flat, and we gorged ourselves. When the fruit flies arrived, it was time to convert the remainder into jam.
And that brings me to another ritual of spring in our household. John, using my mother’s old-fashioned recipe, is the supplier of fruit jam for family and many friends. This year, an unprecedented event occurred. In January the jam supply ran out. Texts were sent with photos of empty jam jars and sad faces. So when I informed the jam aficionados that John was once again filling the house with the heavenly fragrance of cooking strawberries, replies were mixed from “Hooray!” to “It’s about time.”
Every year there seems to be a flying pest that achieves dominance in the annoying insect category. Sometimes it is yellow jackets, white flies, or ants. This year the gnats arrived early and have been relentless. Any fruit left out to ripen is fair game. And they have a fatal attraction to wine. It is pretty disconcerting to look into your wineglass and find a winged friend floating around. You know I have to say this—I guess he or she died happy.
I noticed a different spring activity when I was walking Teddy the other day. Several people were washing—actually, detailing—their cars and RVs, perhaps thinking about hitting the road. I wonder if this is a variation of “spring cleaning.” Washing the windows on the house falls into this category too. Both are guaranteed to bring on a spring shower or two.
The expected signs of spring are concurrently happening. In the chapparal, black-eyed Susans, forsythia, wild tobacco, and yucca are blooming. The apricot tree has lots of fruit in varying sizes. A few drying blossoms on the very top of the tree will provide a treat for the birds. The green hills have vast swaths of bright-orange California poppies and purple lupines. Wild mustard is edging roads all over the valley. Poor-wills, mockingbirds, and owls fill the dark hours with birdsong. The cottontail rabbit population is increasing, lizards abound, and we have a squirrel that delights in tormenting the dogs. Love is in the air as birds of all sizes are gathering nesting materials, and butterflies brighten our garden in increasing numbers.
Yes, all of nature is putting on a show, and we humans are pretty busy too. In a way, spring is an ephemeral season. It is too delicate to last. But for now hope sings, along with the birds, and the promise of new life brightens the future …
Grandma Miller’s and John’s Jam Recipe
(Note: there is no pectin in this recipe.)
The Day Before:
Clean the fruit and cut into small pieces. For every cup of fruit, add ¾ cup of sugar and 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. (Vary the sugar according to the sweetness of the fruit.)
Let sit overnight.
In the Morning:
Sterilize your jars. Each cup of fruit yields about 1 cup of jam.
IMPORTANT: You have to stir the slurry constantly. It takes about an hour and a half to make, so go to bathroom before you start, because you are committed. If you are not stirring constantly while the jam is on the burner, it will burn.
Start cooking the fruit on medium to high heat, depending on the amount of sugar/fruit mixture. When the slurry starts to bubble, foam will appear. Take the pot off the burner and remove the foam.
Return to heat, adjusted to just keeping the jam boiling. Foam will appear in diminishing amounts. You will have to remove the foam about three times.
After about 45 minutes, start testing the jam for thickening. Take a small plate, put about ½ teaspoon of jam on the plate. Let it cool. Tilt the plate. If the jam is runny, it is not ready. If it runs slowly across the plate, it is.
The last cooking step is to put ¼ teaspoon of butter in the jam. This gets rid of the last of the foam, and the jam becomes beautifully glossy.
While the jam is hot, put in jars and seal. When you hear a pop, your jam is ready to store.
John makes this look so easy. I never realized this was such a huge process. Never again will I take his homemade jam for granted!
Frankly, if I saw this recipe, I would never make it. The whole bathroom thing is a nonstarter for me. If you have questions about this process, please leave a comment below. I promise they will be answered by the expert.