Friday, December 10, 2010

Kerr Jars - A Silicon Valley Holiday Memoir

The peeling, creaky ladder went over, spilling at least half a bucket of juicy, Burgundy-colored Royal Ann cherries, most of them tumbling in a sorry heap in the dirt at my feet.

It was 102 in the shade at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and if I weren't trying to keep pace with my buff, older male cousins, I would have cried some deeply female pre-adolescent tears. I was dirty, sweaty, shy, and tired, and I had two more miserable hours among the cicadas, bees, and fruit flies, before cooling relief, in the form of the Meyer lemonade and liverwurst sandwiches which were waiting in my mother's linoleum-patterned kitchen.

Pears soap. A long shower. My faithful Woodhue Cologne. My pink bedroom with it's white lace pillows, collection of special rocks, and dog-eared Agatha Christie novels, one bookmarked and waiting. I would disappear from the jovial warmth of family to find my quiet indoor oasis, although our house had only one bathroom and our entire, gregarious family had descended for the cherry harvest.

We grew Blenheim and Moorpark apricots, along with Royal Ann and Bing cherries, cots which my aunts, cousins, and I would cut faithfully every summer, then dry. Our French Prune crop would be picked and sent to dry yards, then packaged by a local family conglomerate who would make their fortune selling dried produce internationally.

During summer the valley air would smell like a candy store of ripe fruit, sticky with juice and sugar, at least until the peaches were harvested and the canneries would leave the skins to sour and decay in large, steaming piles. All of these visions, scents, and memories live on in my mother's fruit-filled Kerr jars, still tucked away on a shelf, cool and dark, waiting to restore me back to another time, rich with family, the scent of summer, and bounty in the life that was astonishingly simple compared to today.

Our family's European heritage would translate into a holiday gifts of our dried fruits to the postman, to our neighbors, doctors, dentist, tax accountant, and to out-of-state relatives and friends. We would stuff our dried prunes with chopped walnuts or whole roasted almonds, then dip them in dark chocolate, lining up the warm nuggets in dripping rows on old, bent cooling racks. My aunt and uncle, who had an apple orchard in the Wine County, before they converted it to grape varietals, would give us boxes of their spicy, sweet Gravenstein apples, more intensely delicious than any other apple I have tasted since. From this we made our own applesauce, cider, and apple cake, staples on our holiday tables.

I have no idea how my parents managed to produce a large tomato crop every year, since my plants seem to disappear from the valley's clay-hard soil, roots and all, long before they have a chance to produce. From their large crops of tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs, my mother made her own canned, stewed tomatoes, which appeared in some form at every evening meal, cherry-red, gently tart, and carrot-sweet.

I have a deep, new respect for my father, now that I am tending his garden and caring for the family home. I earned my own advanced academic degree to escape the farming life and work as a public librarian, although I now long to recreate the simplicity and abundance of my agricultural memory, while relishing visits to my cousins and their wine and vineyard-related businesses in Napa and Sonoma counties.My father was a wonderful cook, an accomplished dirt gardener, a skilled carpenter who erected redwood patios, decks, a workshop, and other outbuildings. 

He was also a dedicated home journeyman who wrestled skillfully with his own electrical and plumbing work, all while working dawn to dusk as a butcher. I never remember him once being home sick in his 40 years of employment. I wish I had his strength, knowledge, and skill, as I slowly restore the old family home and gardens, now surrounded by Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer, in what has become one artery within the heart of California's Silicon Valley. The picture I have included shows him with three of my six California cousins. He bought them all cowboy outfits around this time, in the late 1940's.

It was a European tradition in our family to have a kettle of Cioppino on Christmas Eve. Everyone would gather and contribute some portion of the fish, Polenta, Ciabatta, or produce. The lace tablecloths would come out, wine glasses would appear, and a tray of relishes and French onion and clam dips would be set out in crystal bowls. As a special treat we would carefully boil ravioli's, either home made or from La Villa Deli in Willow Glen, and have their Cucciddata cookies for dessert, which was a special treat. For summer holidays we would have large bouquets of gorgeous chrysanthemums from our neighbor's hothouses, at least in the early years, before they moved to farm their acres of blooms in the Fresno area.

During holiday meals my father would have a few glasses of red wine and talk wistfully of his Navy days in Guiuan (Eastern Samar) in the Philippines. He was in charge of the vegetable garden near his Quonset hut (and of censoring mail), and would send my mother long letters about his produce, including photos of himself holding boxes of his vegetables and flowers while wearing native dress. He was a kind-hearted and fun-loving man who would find the horrors of war heartbreakingly unbearable. His Navy garden gave him solace, plus my mother's agricultural family, with it's seasonal rituals and strong ties, would strengthen and ground him with wonderful meals filled with fresh produce, among a family who thrived on European traditions and cookery in all its forms.

As I run an old broom down the stacks of my mother's fruit-filled Kerr canning jar cases, I remember the beautiful molasses-colored eyes of one horse, it's large ivory teeth reaching over an old, white-washed corral, to grasp and crunch my offerings of late-summer carrots and apples. My mother and I regularly passed the same horse ranch as we walked down our rural, country lane to "Joe the Egg Man's house," as we called it then, where we would watch Joe candle each egg lovingly, before gently placing it in the cartons which we saved between visits. It's hard to believe that these early years existed in Silicon Valley, now home to a highly educated, high-tech international brain trust, a renowned center of venture capitalism, several world class universities, an astonishingly successful hub of ethnic diversity, and a thriving cultural explosion of opportunities. Back then, it was a dusty, verdant river valley, lush with produce and hard-working first and second generation Asian, Latin, and European families.

Today my mother and father are long gone and the orchard has been subdivided, yet I still have a shed filled with my mother's home-canned apricots, peaches, and cherries from 40-50 years ago. They are no longer safe to eat and some day I will have to dispose of them, but they carry the life-blood of so many family summers in their sealed, sweet chambers, that the time to finally let go of their Dandelion Wine-like magic may not exist in my lifetime.

Recipes (Click images to enlarge)

Brandied Cherries

I was surprised to find several large jars of brandied Royal Ann cherries in my mother's closet after she passed away. 

I have included her recipe for this treat, which is luscious over ice cream or cheesecake. My grandfather made his own wine, whiskey, and brandy when he had a ranch in Cupertino near the current site of the county library and Cupertino City Hall. He used goats to keep the weeds down in the orchard, but that's a story for another time.

Sherry Prune Cake

If you have not tried Prune Cake or Prune Muffins, they are naturally sweet, incredibly moist, and delicious with spicy goodness. I like to add some walnuts to my muffins, and usually leave out the egg yolks and reducing the sugar in my mother's original recipe. I also replace the milk with buttermilk.

My mother's recipe for Sherry Prune Cake is shown in her handwriting, however, her recipe seems to have a few missing steps or ingredients and has never turned out very well for me. Baking temperature is 325 degrees or 300 degrees for glass pans (not shown on the recipe card).

Make sure to oil the pan well and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, as her prune cake has a tendency to stick to the baking pan. Baking times will vary based on the moisture in the prunes (watch the browning of this cake and test with a toothpick to determine that adequate baking time has taken place.) For all of these reasons, using a Bundt or tube pan is not recommended.

To find books with holiday recipes, California Farm life records, and holiday memoirs (on

---Catherine Alexander Bright,