Many people presume the American South to be a warm, comfortable place all year around, but anyone who has spent a winter in Virginia, North Carolina, or even the mountains of Georgia can attest that winters can be chilly and in mountainous regions, often snowy. Even northern Florida can see below-freezing temps in December or January, endangering citrus and other fragile fruit crops and hindering a good start in life for newborn calves. So like people in many other climates, Southerners have long had to figure out means of providing ample food through the winter when food is scarce and, prior to the advent of refrigeration, ways to make a bountiful harvest last from late summer further into the year.
Preserves, also known as conserves, were one way of doing just that. Fruit and vegetables could be cooked and canned for later use, and when prepared properly, kept safely for many months. Meat even was preserved in this same manner, with beef or venison canned also, but while many vegetables were pickled, stewed, or otherwise canned, the most transformative process always seemed to me to be that of taking the raw fruits of summer and turning them into quite another type of foodstuff. It seemed nearly magical, the ability to have fresh-tasting, sweet fruit on a day in December when a fine coat of snow could be seen for miles over the hayfields and mountains from the kitchen window.
I spoke with my maternal grandmother, Mayo Martin Lemons, about the traditional ways of canning and the differences between preserves, conserves, and other canned goods. While all her information was enlightening, what struck me as most interesting was her explanations for what fruits were selected for use and what was even obtainable in her childhood. At ninety-four years old, Mayo has seen a wealth of changes in how food is grown, prepared, and consumed in an entire life spent around farming. With a son who is a beef rancher, a husband who was the same and also a dairyman, and a daughter-in-law who owns and runs a local restaurant, Mayo’s views on food are well-informed and cover generations.
Preserves, the most common name for all fruit-based canned goods in their region of southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, were of course made of whatever fruit was on hand and desired to retain for the future. Strawberries, apples, peaches, and wild blackberries all were likely to appear in preserves. And rhubarb, a distinct plant often mixed in with strawberries in jams across the South but also the subject of a highly-prized regional pie in West Virginia, was perhaps the most-recognized of all. Rhubarb is a leafy plant and toxic if eaten without proper cooking; its stalks are what are boiled and made into a jam, normally with strawberries mixed in to cut its strong flavor. Mayo spoke fondly of it and hoped her cousin Doris Ann would take some of her rhubarb plants so they would live on past her own garden. These plants had been re-located from Mayo’s old farmhouse where her son and his wife now live and have become an heirloom of food, producing generations, decades, of rhubarb for the family.
Mayo recalls making preserves and jams with her mother and sisters—Edith, Jessie, and Frances—on the old woodstove in her childhood home near Sinks Grove, West Virginia. The approach was the same as cooking with an electric range today, but the challenge in keeping the heat hot enough was expectedly more daunting when dealing with wood to burn, as was the problem of the heat’s being too severe and burning the delicate, gel-like fruit.
While recipes were normally simple, the technique for making perfect jams and preserves was not. The time for making these fruit-based foods was normally around the end of summer, the onset of autumn. It was thus the first of many chores associated with harvesting and preparing for winter’s coming. Soon other crops would be put up—some were already underway—and the cattle sold at the stock sale.
By October, the gourds and pumpkins would be brought in; the potatoes and root vegetables from the garden also. These would be stored in the cellar. Often, as with Mayo’s son Gary, potatoes were so valued a food and took up so much room in planting that they were given their own vast plot on a hillside instead of in the main family garden. In November, hogs—which were kept in small numbers for the family’s use in contrast to the beef raised for commercial sale—would be slaughtered and the meat put up as sausage, hams, and other cuts. This was a very time-consuming and essential task and involved the full attention of the men and women of the family alike. The preserves in contrast were mostly the work of the ladies.
The convention of preserves can be laid out in several different, specific types: the preserves, where fruit is cooked and canned; the conserve, which is a whole fruit jam stewed with sugar, so sweet but often not of a totally delicate texture; the term confit indicates a savory preserve of vegetables or even meat. And to further complicate things, there is also the undoubtedly related term comfit which denotes not a jam at all but a candy made of dried nuts or other foodstuff coated with a hard sugar candy, as in Jordan almonds.
Fruit and other preserves of this nature are far from new to the American South, mentioned in letters from before the Civil War, such as those recorded in the book Best Companions: Letters of Eliza Middleton Fisher and Her Mother, Mary Hering Middleton, from Charleston, Philadelphia, and Newport, 1839-1846, accounted for in the earliest of cookbooks, and found in the pioneering foodways both high and low of the region. The cuisine of Thomas Jefferson includes dishes which, though cooked right before serving and somewhat ornate, found their origins in the culture of preserved fruits and vegetables.
Anything from summer that could in this fashion be carried over certainly was, and still is, with compotes for dessert and canned green beans, squash, and other foods for side dishes. Southern “country” buffets often have dishes such as the green beans and stewed tomatoes which can be prepared from fresh vegetables but also just as well from those canned from one’s garden for when such vegetables are out of season.
Many “new Southern” restaurants are rediscovering the delights of these foodways, but in rural restaurants from West Virginia to Florida, these traditions never really faded away. And in rural kitchens everywhere in our South, come July, August, and September, the preserves are being made as bushel baskets of apples and peaches, buckets of blackberries, and bunches of rhubarb appear from the garden, grove, and orchard to the awaiting kitchen.
MAYO LEMONS’ RHUBARB JAM
6 cups rhubarb, cut fine
6 cups sugar
2 boxes of 3 oz wild strawberry or raspberry jello
Let sugar and rhubarb stand a few minutes to let sugar dissolve. Bring to a boil. Cook ten minutes, stirring well. Then add jello and stir thoroughly; remove from heat and pour into sterilized jars and seal.
SEE MORE “PRESERVES” PHOTOS HERE