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Canning Prunes


It started at the public market on a September Saturday morning. Harvest time for fall fruit. Pears, apples, and my favourite, French prunes. French prunes are the football shaped, dark purple-skinned fruit with a blush of blue and green Insides. We always bought at least a couple baskets, those woven wood baskets with the handle. Those days, they let you keep the basket, carry the luscious fruit home in them. 


The market itself was a sensory experience. Farmers, there since dawn, hawked their goods like carnival barkers. “Get your pears here”, “Tomatoes, last of the year, ripen in your window sill”, “Walnuts, fresh walnuts, have a sample, fresh walnuts here”. The meat and cheese were in an enclosed building, whole pigs heads, cow tongues, smelly cheeses, not as bad as my grandparents limburger, but smelly anyway. There were live chickens the farmer would wring the neck of before you bought them, fish on ice with their eyes staring straight ahead. 


My grandfather bartered for the best price on everything. He sampled the fruit, handed me a piece to try also. Then we made our choices and carried baskets back to our green Rambler. 


I’d usually want to eat an apple on the short drive home, but my grandmother didn’t want me to spoil my appetite for lunch. 


After lunch we set up shop on the grey Formica kitchen table. We had the big blue enamel pot for boiling both the skin off the fruit and later the boiling bath for the canning jars. Lots of canning jars, quarts and pints, golden lids and screw-on tops. A fat black smelly marker for writing dates on the lids, an old dented aluminium funnel and a ladle to pour the cut-up sugared fruit into the jars before their boiling bath. 


First job was to cut up the fruit, remove the pits, peel certain fruits like peaches and pears but the French prunes were allowed to keep their regal purple jackets on. The fruit was cooked with ample sugar and water to make a heavy sweet syrup. The kitchen windows had condensation on the glass, the room was humid with steam. Canning took most of the day and the three of us, grandma, Grampa, and me. 


As the fruit and sugar cooked together I sometimes got to stir with the big wooden spoon. My grandparents were always right there taking care I didn’t burn myself or get splashed by hot syrup. The empty jars were all ready to receive lined up all over the kitchen table. After the fruit cooled a bit the jars were filled ladle by ladle, then the lids put on. The jars were then lowered into he boiling water bath with about an inch of water covering them and boiled for about half an hour. After the kitchen timer announced time was up my grandfather took the jars out of the bath and set then on towels covering the kitchen counter space. More jars were filled with syrupy fruit and the process began all over again. It was lucky to have fruit that didn’t fit into the last remaining jar because we could eat that nice and warm with coffee later. 


The filled jars took hours to seal. Sealing was announced by the Cluck of the rubber ring under the lid forming a tight seal to the jar. There was also an indentation in the center of the lid showing the jar had been sealed. It had to be completely sealed before the screw-on outer lid could be put on, then dated with the marker and stored. Our cat Toby was shushed away from the jars so they wouldn’t be disturbed while cooling. My Uncle Lou, who lived with us, would yell “Another one popped” while he was in the kitchen reading after dinner while the rest of us were in the living room watching Ed Sullivan or Red Skelton. 


By the next day the jars were all sealed, other lids screwed on and labelled with the date. We had a small room off the cellar with shelves and an old wooden ice box we called the Fruit Cellar. My grandfather would bring all the jars down and put them on shelves, newest behind oldest, to enjoy all winter. There was a pull-string light down there that made all the jars glow like Aladdin’s cave of jewels. 


My much-anticipated reward for helping was a bowl of canned French prunes. Glossy and purple-red, like garnets. I’d spoon the syrup, also a rich purple, over the fruit and slice them in half, tucking the pit to the side for disposal. The smell of home, of working together, of the magic of the public market was in every delicious spoonful. 


As a side note, I bought an aluminium can of prunes in heavy syrup last week at the grocery store. Yesterday I was feeling under the weather and had them for dessert. The colour was more carnelian red than purple. I closed my eyes while I chewed, the distant memory arrived and I knew I’d write about this. The taste was tinny, watered down and missing something. I knew it was the teamwork of family, the bustle of the market, love ladled along with fruit into empty vessels, like the innocent child I once was. Today my garden is established and thriving after the five years we’ve put into it from the nothing that was here. My French prune tree is full of blossoms and bees. I know what I’ll be doing come this Fall. 


 

Diane Funston has been published in journals including California Quarterly, Lake Affect, F(r)iction, Tule Review, San Diego Poetry Annual, among others. She served two years as Poet-in-Residence for Yuba-Sutter Arts and Culture Her chapbook, “Over the Falls” was published by Foothills Publishing in 2022.

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