Onward and Upward in the Garden: From the New Yorker

On the Slightly Mad Urge to Preserve

Like virtually every bookish child in the Western world, I inherited certain lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Reading the “Little House on the Prairie” series as a girl, I believed three things: that my future womanly waist would be small enough for Pa’s hands to encircle; that snow could freeze maple syrup into delightful snacks; and that the secret to security and happiness lay in preserving fruits and vegetables for winter.

Is it possible that Laura lied? My attempt at a “sugaring off,” during a tepid winter in southern England, resulted in a small syrup puddle; and Pa’s best shot at encirclement is probably around my wrist. The third Prairie Rule, however, I will uphold until death, in the face of common sense and sanity.

Like cannibalism, or golf, preserving is justified in certain extreme situations. Rosehip cordial helped keep the children of Britain scurvy-free during the Second World War; Russian-style compote is a magnificent use of dacha crops that would otherwise be wasted. If one lives in an idyll of herring and wild raspberries on a Swedish island, or, like the Ingalls family, simply needs fuel to endure the latest grasshopper plague, blizzard, malarial infection, or panther, it’s logical to store what one can of nature’s bounty.

For the rest of us, stranded in urban mire, the need to preserve is nugatory, and the idea of a zucchini glut or raspberry surfeit is ludicrous. Occasionally, I am slightly overwhelmed by green tomatoes. Sometimes there’s a little too much chicory. But, otherwise, I must work with my limited supplies, my accidental bounties, or else acquire my excess elsewhere. It goes without saying that the results have been mixed.

Take shiso, for instance. After years of trying and failing to grow the herb, whose jagged, heart-shaped leaves elevate sushi to the food of the gods, I finally succeeded with super-fresh seed—and how! Oh, I was proud of my miniature forest; I added tiny quantities to omelettes, to Vietnamese pho and magnificent salads, and, when my ingenuity ran out, I found a recipe for salted shiso. Would you like to try a petrified gray leaf? No one else does.

Olives were the opposite. Like many pretentious town dwellers, I have a single runty and badly pruned tree, unimaginably far from the gnarled Greek mountainsides. So imagine my pride when the feeble London sun ripened a handful of olives from turtle-green to bruise-mauve to purple. It was oddly difficult to find out how to brine them; perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask then you’ll never know. After weeks of daily rinsing, they were ready: eleven blackish items, not unlike rabbit droppings, floating in a pool of oil. They seemed too precious, or perhaps repulsive, to share, and so I saved them until they mummified.

Quinces? Don’t talk to me about quinces. I adore them, for both gastronomic and nostalgic reasons, but they are hard to find. A friend, knowing my weakness, once gave me two dozen. Ignoring his warnings about the astounding effort required, I decided to make Spanish-style membrillo: scented pink cubes of quince heaven, multipurpose and long-lasting—if, that is, one follows the recipe and includes enough sugar. The alternative, while biologically interesting, is a little too moldy to enjoy.

It is in the matter of berry jam, or jelly, that true madness lies, because that’s where the twin urges of foraging and preserving meet. Of course, I never grow enough crop of my own, nothing like it, so instead I must root out sources of free fruit. Free fruit! Who could resist? If you can, can I have yours? I have boiled kilos of wild blackberries that would otherwise have had happy lives rotting on the bush or being nibbled by feral blackbirds. This August, I coveted the golden plums that plopped unappreciated into a neighbor’s ivy, until I had the brilliant idea to make a shrub, or drinking vinegar, from them. I picked, macerated, simmered, puréed, sieved, and, at the climactic moment, discovered that the picturesque ceramic-stoppered bottle I had chosen to store it in was not quite strong enough to withstand the boiling goo, which poured in torrents into every corner of my kitchen.

I have produced dramatically disgusting yet costly pickles. I have made chutney, Britain’s vinegary national relish, which is used by the teaspoonful—once a month at most. My only success, wild-damson jam, is so laborious and precious that I can’t bear to surrender it. Instead, I’ve stockpiled the jars for years, and now only I would dare to eat the tarry contents. I suspect I’m not alone. These days, most of us preserve out of sentiment and curiosity; the resulting jars, usually dark brown and always, always sticky, aren’t exactly keeping us alive. If anything, it’s the opposite. Quince-paste botulism; what a way to go. I’d definitely prefer it to the panther.

  • Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.