For a peach-lover, mid-August means three things:
1. It's the height of peach season.
2. Peach season is almost over.
3. It's time to put up peaches for the winter.
I developed this tripartite Theory of August just a year ago. It was my first summer in D.C., my first introduction to a city's robust farmers' market culture, and therefore my first experience with having regular access to ripe, local peaches. I'd always enjoyed peach-flavored foods, devouring everything from Haribo sweet and sour peach gummy candies to Snapple peach iced tea to the fuzzy-if-somewhat-hard grocery-store peaches I bought from time to time. And maybe once or twice a summer, I'd come upon a perfect peach—firm-skinned, juicy-fleshed, and sweet but not cloying. Beginning last June, though, I saw those once-a-summer peaches in piles, every week, at D.C.'s Foggy Bottom farmers' market, and I wondered where I'd been all my life.
I approached my new discovery with the zeal of a religious convert. I ate two peaches a day—at least. I made peach cobblers and peach pies. When a co-worker casually mentioned that he wasn't much of a peach fan, I marched right over to the market, bought one, left it on his desk, and would not rest until he consumed it and confessed that yes, it was delicious.
Then, sometime early last August, I woke up with a sinking feeling. As I knew well from my days as a schoolgirl, summer wasn't going to last forever. Peach season would be over soon. One day, I was going to show up at the farmers' market and find my beloved peaches replaced with Honeycrisp apples. I had to prepare.
I bought 40 peaches, and rather than can alone, I invited a group of friends to join me. The result was magnificent.
That's when I decided to make peach jam. I was inspired by a range of blog posts I'd read on the subject of jam-making and canning, including the Bitten Word's post on strawberry jam and Melina Shannon-DiPietro's piece on canned peaches here at the Food Channel.
A city girl with no family tradition of "putting up" food, I set about educating myself on safe canning techniques—I'd heard whispers of botulism in home canning endeavors, and I had no desire to flirt with death in my attempt to keep the flame of my peach passion alive. I found a recipe on Epicurious that seemed sufficiently attentive to safety without requiring me to buy any new equipment (pressure cookers, wire racks, and the like), so I bookmarked it and spent my next free Saturday preserving peaches.
It was a slow process. The Wednesday before canning day, I bought about 15 peaches from the farmers' market and left them out on my kitchen counter in a bowl so they'd ripen by the weekend. I put off buying the jars until Saturday, and it turned out to be harder than I'd expected—I visited my neighborhood hardware and dollar stores, then the local Bed Bath & Beyond, and came out empty-handed. Finally, I called a True Value hardware store a mile or so from my house and learned that they stocked Ball jars. Following my recipe's instructions, I pitted the peaches, chopped them into quarter-inch pieces, mixed them with sugar and lemon juice, and left them to marinate while I dashed downtown to buy the jars.
When I returned, I began canning in earnest. Feeling a bit like a priest preparing the elements for communion, I washed the jars and screw bands with warm, soapy water, and heated the lids in boiling water to activate their sealant. I filled the jars with hot water so they wouldn't burst when I later filled them with scalding jam and plunged them into a stock pot of boiling water.
Then I prepared the jam itself. I poured the peach-sugar-lemon juice mixture into a large pot and brought it to boil. I went after the peaches with a potato-masher until the mix was a chunky puree. I lowered the heat and cooked the fruit for another 20 minutes or so, stirring frequently and impatiently—I couldn't wait to get to the next step, the canning part, when I would actually be preserving the peaches for a chilly, far-off month when Haribo would be my only other source of peach flavor.
Eventually, it was time, and I spooned the hot peach mixture into the prepared jars, covered the jars with their lids, and screwed them closed with the bands. Then I placed the jars in a large pot filled with hot water and lined with extra screw bands—so the jars would not risk cracking by being exposed to direct heat—covered the pot, and brought the water to a boil. The jam cooked in the jars for another 10 minutes. I plucked the jars out of the water with tongs, set them each on the counter, and marveled.
As proud as I was of the results of my experiment, there were some disappointments. First, there was the quantity made versus the time I'd spent preparing—weeks of research, days of preparation, and hours of work had produced just three and a half jars of jam, which hardly seemed enough to get through the winter.
And then, there was the solitariness. Usually when you spend the day at a hot stove, your reward is being able to share the fruits of your labor with an audience of appreciative eaters. Not so with canning. After I fished out the last jar from the pot, I left the jam on the counter to cool and thicken, took a shower, and went out to a party with co-workers. I eventually did give a jar to my parents, and they were appreciative, but a year later the jar remains in their refrigerator, still unfinished. They're not big jam eaters.
This year, I corrected both deficiencies. I bought 40 peaches, and rather than can alone, I invited a group of friends to join me. The result was magnificent. We ended up with 26 jars of jam. We would have had more, but we ran out of jars and had to, just had to, use the leftovers to make a peach cobbler—which I was able to share with a table of grateful friends at a birthday party that very night.
And because so many people had shared in the process of making the jam, plenty of people were able to enjoy it in the days that followed. A co-worker placed her jar on her desk so she could enjoy the way the light hit the beautiful, orangey-pinkish mixture. A friend told me he'd eaten his over ice cream with his roommates—a serving suggestion I took to heart a few days later when I finished off a group dinner with Breyer's French vanilla, preserved peaches, and some home-made granola provided by the host. The peaches tasted terrific—just sweet and syrupy enough.
But more satisfying than the sheer quantity of jam at the end of the day, or watching my friends enjoy it, was being able to share the canning experience with others. Some came for the lunch I offered to serve anyone who participated, others for the promise of a jar of jam at the end of the day, and still others because they truly wanted to practice the craft of canning. It didn't matter—having the house filled with people enjoying the smell of peaches cooking in sugar was enough to take the edge off the cold truth that lingered in the back of my mind all day: It's the height of peach season. Peach season is almost over. Winter is on its way.