Jam, pickles, and the ghost of domestic Gothic

This month I made jam for the first time in my life – my first ever preserve of any kind. My mum has made jam many, many times. When I asked her to give me a run-through of her jam-making technique she just said: “Oh, it’s easy, it’s very easy! There’s nothing to it, you’ll see!” As though the knowledge and the skill of turning fruit into sweet, indulgent spreads somehow came with the territory of being a woman and keeping a home.

I have avoided trying my hand at making jam or any other kind of preserves for many years – who needs to undergo the pain of creation when you can buy, right? Yet I had to eventually bow to the reality that you simply can’t buy everything everywhere. In my case, quince jam, one of my favourites, was the culprit. I can find fresh quinces where I live, if I try really hard and pray to the gods of corner shops, yet quince jam is a different matter. This year, finally, I bit the bullet and got down to it, with much anxiety and apprehension.

Preserving food, you see, is an arcane art as far as I’m concerned. How does it happen? Black magic, surely.

For some time now, I have had this vague but persistent sense that preserves are a symbol of, on the one hand, femininity and creativity, and on the other hand of historic hand-me-downs forced onto younger generations.

They are, in other words, culinary haunting, the incarnation of the domestic Gothic. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, elderly ladies from the neighbourhood – they are and have always been the queens of the preserves. They make jams, compotes and pickles according to family tradition and from local produce. They label them with great accuracy: name, maker, year of enclosure in the jar. So much of personal history and identity comes in these jars: “This is where I come from, this is the food I am used to. My grandmother used to make this, and it is my turn now to emulate her witchcraft.”

The first time, however, that I intuited the Gothic appeal of preserves was while reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There is a passage, about a quarter of the way into the story, that gave me goosebumps the first time I read the book, and still does with every reread. The character-narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, describes the underbelly of the ancestral home where she continues to live with her sister Constance and their uncle Julian. It is made of layers and layers of preserves, added to the cellar by generations of Blackwood women:

“The entire cellar of our house was filled with food. All the Blackwood women had made food and had taken pride in adding to the great supply of food in our cellar. There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly. Constance had worked all her life at adding to the food in the cellar, and her rows and rows of jars were easily the handsomest, and shone among the others. ‘You bury food the way I bury treasure,’ I told her sometimes, and she answered me once: ‘The food comes from the ground and can’t be permitted to stay there and rot; something has to be done with it.’ All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.”

To my mind, there is something unsettling about the image of rows upon rows of carefully preserved food at (as?) the foundation of the home, about the fruit and vegetables suspended in jars, cans, and bottles, long-lasting but not imperishable. They give nourishment and sustain life – but only for a certain period of time, not clearly determined. Eaten at the wrong time, they may well kill or at the very least induce violent sickness.

Boris Iakovlev, Preserves (1939) at State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo by Lars Kleberg.

“Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve or pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.”

The preserves are a symbol: their essence comes from the ground, like the bones of the dead. They are also a testament to the lives and efforts of the ancestresses who made them. And they are a curse, the curse of inherited destiny: “As you are, so I once was,/ As I am, so shall you be.” In Jackson’s novel, Merricat tries to escape this curse, while Constance finds refuge in the familiarity of feminine domestic ritual.

Perhaps in my erstwhile stubbornness not to make jam I have been more like Merricat – though I eventually failed and gave in to the nostalgia of quince jam, come what may.

But preserves can also be a gift to those you love and cherish, as it is from Constance to Merricat: “This Saturday morning I had apricot jam on my toast, and I thought of Constance making it and putting it away carefuly for me to eat on some bright morning.”

Just as well, they can be a spectre, a threat, and the silent recorder of a life of pain and difficulty, as I believe is the case in Olga Tokarczuk’s short story, “Preserves for Life.”

In it, a 40-something-year-old bachelor who has spent his entire life under his mother’s roof depending on her care and patience, comes across her accummulation of homemade preserves after her death. These speak of years of resignation to the fate of the Angel in the House, spent in the cellar arranging jars of preserved food while the man of the house followed his own remarkable destiny:

“[S]he had been glad to spend time down there; somehow he had never stopped to wonder about it. Whenever she thought he was watching the match too loud, whenever her feeble grumbling seemed in vain, he would hear keys rattling, then a door slamming, and she would disappear for a good long, blissful time. Meanwhile he would happily give himself over to his favourite occupation: emptying can after can of beer while following two groups of men in coloured shirts as they moved about from one half of a pitch to the other.”

Some of them, chillingly, might also speak of cognitive decline, gone unnoticed – for example, the jar labelled “Shoestrings in vinegar, 2004,” or “Sponge in tomato sauce, 2001.”

The story, however, ends with the triumph of pickled foodstuff and, by extension, that of the long-suffering mother’s “ghost,” but I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so I won’t go into any more detail. Suffice it to say that there is a very thin line between the Angel in the House and the Witch in the Pantry, or so Tokarczuk would have us believe and I, for one, want to believe her.

Having triumphed over quince jam (or at least having not failed miserably), I am no longer in awe of the ghost of slain quinces. Yet I see other ghosts in my jam jars – those of the homemaker and of the home culture – that I remain in conversation with whether I like it or not.

What ghosts do your foods hold?

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