On a Strawberry Afternoon

On a Strawberry Afternoon May 24, 2024

strawberry pieces boiling in a pot
image via Pixabay


I figured out how to make strawberry jam.

I planted those five little strawberry plants in 2020, when Trump and Biden were running for president and the whole world was falling to pieces. The menacing neighbor ran onto my property one Sunday morning in a fit of mania and tore one of those strawberry plants out of the ground, along with a bean pole and most of the broccoli, but the other four plants survived. They sent out runners, colonizing half of the patch I’d originally dug, and every year they got a little more luxuriant. In 2021, I picked a handful. In 2022, Jimmy the Mechanic accidentally ran over them when he was mowing my lawn as a favor, and I got nothing. In 2023, I filled a bowl with fruit twice. This year, when Trump and Biden are running for president and the whole world is falling to pieces, I’ve got more strawberries than I know what to do with.

Last night, after fussing over the sunflower seedlings and weeding around the tiny watermelon sprouts, I picked a heaping spaghetti strainer full of strawberries. Adrienne and I had some for an evening snack. I can’t describe how different a strawberry that’s ripened on the plant tastes from a strawberry that comes from the grocery store. But there was still a gigantic pile of strawberries in my fridge, just waiting to rot and be useless. Normally, when I have an excess of food from my garden, I donate it to The Friendship Room for their salads, but these strawberries a bit rustic looking: small, lumpy and imperfect as home grown organic strawberries are. I thought I’d better make a recipe out of the strawberries instead of just giving them away whole.

I meant to find something to cook or bake early in the day, to surprise Adrienne when she was in school. But early in the morning, the mother of the Baker Street Irregulars needed a ride to her little one’s preschool graduation picnic, and then she needed someone to take her on her weekly errands, and then I had to go to the doctor. I came home exhausted well after noon.

The mother of the Baker Street Irregulars had paid me back for gas in part by giving me some of the fresh fruit and vegetables from the pantry box I’d helped her pick up, and I’d set the box down in the middle of the living room when I came in, so of course I nearly tripped on it before I went to get Adrienne. There were three big flavorless grocery store tomatoes, two sacks of potatoes, some ugly wrinkled peppers, three eggplant– and a bag of cherries, which I quickly threw in the fridge. In my haste, I didn’t notice the “keep frozen” sign on the cherries.

I met Adrienne outside the school and showed her the four-pound sack of sugar and the lemons I’d bought, and informed her we were going to make jam.

I had never made jam before in my life.

The first step was to read the recipe, which called for “sixteen ounces of strawberries.”  I didn’t know how much a strawberry weighed, and I didn’t have a kitchen scale. After some research, I concluded that sixteen ounces of strawberries is two and three quarters of a cup of chopped pieces. I stood in the kitchen, chopping fruit, listening to pointless YouTube videos, filling the compost bucket with strawberry tops. Lady Mcfluff the Guinea pig smelled the fruit and squealed like a fire engine, so I opened the bag of cherries and gave her one– again, without reading the bag, though I did take notice that the cherries had no pits.

There were about twenty-four ounces of fruit, one and a half batches, in my saucepan when Adrienne came downstairs. I’d just sliced and juiced a lemon because I was making freezer jam, which requires lemon juice instead of pectin to set up. Adrienne took the squeezed quarters of the lemon off the plate in front of me and began eating them like orange slices as she asked sarcastic questions in her adolescent way. I poured sugar over the lemon juiced strawberries, and turned up the heat on my pan.

I don’t know why I thought it would take longer than a few minutes to come to a boil.

That was when I realized that I hadn’t put a plate in the freezer to get cold first. The recipe said you could see if your jam was ready by dribbling it onto a frozen plate, but now I didn’t have one.

I quickly scrolled down on the recipe, which helpfully informed me that you could also tell if it was ready by seeing if the mixture was boiling at two hundred twenty degrees.

“Get the turkey thermometer!” I shouted.

“The WHAT?”

I rifled through the kitchen drawers. “THE TURKEY THERMOMETER!”

Adrienne handed me the bulb-handled turkey baster as the pot of jam boiled over onto the glass-top stove.

Sugar syrup makes quite an ugly smell as it burns.

I grabbed the pot off the burner with one hand as Adrienne laughed at me, still holding the baster. It turns out that the turkey thermometer was on the opposite kitchen counter where it’s been since the Easter flood. I don’t know the difference between a turkey thermometer and a candy thermometer, but I assume they work in similar ways. I put the jam back on the heat and stuck the thermometer into it– and, of course, it immediately bubbled over again.

“I think it got up to 200,’ I said helplessly, moving the pot to a smaller, cleaner burner.

I tested the temperature a moment later. It came up to two hundred-twenty just as the bright pink goo bubbled over the pot once more, fouling the entire stovetop with burnt syrup. The jam went into a bowl on the counter to cool off.

Adrienne asked if I’d make her pasta and sauce for dinner.

“You expect DINNER?” I sputtered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use the stove again.”

I remembered a technique where a better housekeeper than I am cleaned her stovetop with vinegar and baking soda, so I tried it. I put all my jam-making implements in the sink, and then poured baking soda on the fouled stovetop while Adrienne diced those food pantry tomatoes. The only vinegar I could find was apple cider, which put on a dramatic show. We’d run out of paper towels at this point. I ended up wiping down several layers of the mess with kitchen hand towels, all of which went into a pile in front of the washing machine.

“Mom?” said Adrienne just then. “Either the refrigerator is bleeding, or there’s something wrong with the cherries.”

There was, indeed, a large pool of vermillion liquid forming under the fridge.

I examined the bag of cherries. I realized that they were pitted and washed frozen cherries that had been thawed in the fridge for a few hours now, leaking out all their juices. They smelled like they were starting to turn.

Adrienne scrubbed the floor with soap and water and a bathroom towel, which was all the towel we had left.

The cherries went on top of my compost heap, with the strawberry hulls and the pile of weeds from the garden. I felt like taking out my frustration on something, so I turned over the compost with my shovel. I stabbed and hacked at the compost until I saw the rich black mud at the bottom, with several more sunflower seedlings sending out ghostly white roots.

On the way in, I noticed that one of the bush watermelons I planted to please Jimmy’s boy had finally sprouted the first of their real lobed leaves. That volunteer pumpkin which grew from the Jack-o-Lantern I threw on the compost was growing up lush and healthy. The peas were almost waist-high, flowering with purple and white blossoms that looked like orchids, lovely enough to be a bouquet. And one of the tomato plants had flowered. We’ll have food all summer, and enough left over to share.

I came in and made rotini with crushed tomatoes and meat, Adrienne’s favorite summer supper. The grocery store tomatoes took some seasoning before they tasted like food. The ones I’ll get out of the garden in a few weeks will be much better. But these weren’t bad.

I almost never eat sweets anymore, but I did sneak a little of the jam as I stuck the bowl in the fridge. It was everything jam ought to be– pristine, glistening ruby red, sweeter than jam from the grocery store, and yet it had a little bite to it. It was jam that remembered it was made of strawberries instead of goo.  This jam was too nice for spreading on sandwiches. Jam this beautiful deserved to be drizzled over ice cream– not the white paste from a plastic bucket, but the GOOD vanilla ice cream with little black flecks in it that comes in a carton. I’ll get some tomorrow.

I didn’t even remember the mess in the kitchen and laundry room until Michael came in and found it later that night.

I wonder if I’ll ever get used to things going right.




Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.


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