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Slowly the light dawns -- what I learned about food in the Midwest

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Slowly the light dawns -- what I learned about food in the Midwest

Mrs. Smith | Sep 22, 2004 04:00 PM

I like jam. I've been searching for a good jam for a long time. I spent a long, very expensive few years having a love affair with Bar-le-Duc currants (yes, they are ruinously expensive). I've tried all the good "red" jams (raspberry, strawberry, cherry) -- Bonne Maman is a current favorite.

But I always seemed to be chasing some elusive jam/jelly nirvana, however. I remember biting into jam-on-toast as a child and having shivery sensations of delight. I remember thinking that jam on buttered English Muffin Bread toast was the most delicious thing in the world. I was trying to recapture that.

I didn't think that perhaps it was my mother's homemade jam that made the difference. Don't ask me why -- but I thought her lowly "freezer jam" couldn't possibly compare to the best French preserves, the small-batch organic products of Northern California, the luxury fruit jams of fancy catalogs. Why I had this particular mania I don't know.

So I was visiting the homeland again recently, having forgotten about this obsession. We were staying at 'Grandma's" house (my mother's house), my infant son, husband, and I, and I absentmindedly dabbed a bit of the brint pinky-red strawberry jam from the nondescript mason jar on my toast. In an instant all my jam-memories came back to me! It was a true food epiphany. I had forgotten what this jam could taste like.

Now my mother doesn't like to "can", so she makes freezer jam. To the unitiated, this is a product that is made with something called "Sure Jel", which is a powdered fruit pectin. The fruit is never cooked, it is simply mashed, combined with sugar and the Sure Jel, and then put in the freezer. Once out of the freezer, it must be kept in the refrigerator to avoid spoiling. It does not have the same consistency as proper (cooked) jam/preserves/conserves/jelly. It is a little looser and a bit clumpier. It also doesn't loose that lovely fresh-strawberry color. And the big kicker is, it has an amazing fresh strawberry flavor that I have never been able to find in any other jam. It's truly the essence of the berry -- fresh and sassy, with a hint of tartness, and a lightness that no cooked jam has.

My mother made these with U-Pick strawberries she had gathered with my aunt. She's been doing this for years- - I just had forgotten how amazing the flavor was. I asked her about the process, and I also found out that she picked the berries in the morning, and had all the jam-making done before dinnertime. No wonder this jam tastes of sunshine -- it can't get much more delicious than this. She also has made a raspberry version, which is also good, but not quite heavenly as the strawberry.

What a find -- now I know why none of the gourmet jams measured up -- they were all cooked!

Also, while visiting the northern part of Minnesota, I once again encountered real rhubarb. The rhubarb grown in this cool climate cannot compare to the tasteless, fibrous red sticks sold in the California markets. It's really a cold-weather crop, and, like kohlrabi, never really travels well or grows well further south. What a treat to eat with a bit of sugar -- another food memory from my youth.

I also went out to eat to have walleye (a rare treat now with threat of lead in Northern lakes -- even the big Lake Superior). What a fine, firm, white fish. Served broiled with lemon nothing could be simpler or more delicious. It made me forget about ocean fish for a while, with it's unique freshwater character. Another food product that benefits from the cold -- these cold water fish have a uniquely robust white-fish taste, without being oily.

And, while visiting friends, I had another treat -- real Swedish coffee. The old couple we visited brewed their Arvid Nordquist coffee in an old percolator pot lined with granite. It was a heavy black, with a slick of the natural coffee oil evident on the surface of the coffee. Served in the old way, which means with two lumps of sugar put in the bottom of the cup before the coffee was poured in, and then a dash of very heavy "coffee cream" put in after, it was a feast of coffee scents and flavors. After that first cup, I had a little of this coffee black to taste it properly -- maybe it was the brewing method, but for me it was the best cup of coffe I'd had in ages. Full and balanced, with absolutely zero bitterness. It seemed meatier somehow, like Turkish coffee is, again, perhaps because of the brewing. It was very satisfying.

All these forgotten delights I renewed and enjoyed during a trip back home. It just reminds me that there is good food everywhere, not just in my food-snob home of Northern California.

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