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Preserving Summer

Discover the simplicity, "soul satisfaction," and delicious results of old-fashioned arts like canning.

By Rachel Meyer

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When she makes jam, Vanessa Barrington likes to start with a clean kitchen—like an uncluttered yoga studio, the open space encourages clarity and focus. From there, the craft unfurls. Unloading bags of ripe red plums from her local farmers' market, the Oakland, California, cookbook author rinses each one and blots it dry before halving it with a sharp paring knife and removing the pit. Her cutting board stained with bright purple juice, she chops the plums and places them in a pot with sugar, where they simmer gently, releasing vivid juices that bubble and fill the kitchen with a lush fruity aroma. As the plums cook, she sterilizes the jars, carefully removing them from a kettle of boiling water with long-handled tongs and placing them on a clean kitchen towel to await filling.

Barrington makes her jam without any added pectin, opting instead to cook the fruit down slowly over low heat until it reaches the desired consistency. As in a long-term yoga practice, sometimes the richest rewards take time to develop.

Barrington finds the same refuge and focus in the kitchen that she does in her Iyengar practice, with its emphasis on precision, alignment, and attention to every breath. Her cookbook, D.I.Y. Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Food from Scratch, emerged out of a desire to get back to basics when, during the recent economic downturn, she began teaching herself to make foods like preserves, yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut.

Barrington tests the jam's consistency by spooning a few drops onto a plate; when the glossy red mixture sets softly without running, it's ready. She fills the jars in a kind of moving meditation, carefully wiping the rims, securing the lids, and then placing the jars on a rack in her canning kettle. After processing, the jars will stand again on her counter to cool. Barrington's not alone in her do-it-yourself kitchen sensibility. Forward-thinking city dwellers are increasingly "urban homesteading," reclaiming traditional kitchen crafts like canning vegetables, preserving jams and jellies, pickling, raising chickens for eggs, keeping bees for honey, and crafting homemade cheeses.

Urban Union

The word "homesteading" usually conjures images of hardscrabble pioneers, but for yoga practitioners like Barrington, the practice is less frontier myth and more a way of restoring balance, a recognition that living in the city doesn't have to mean a disconnect from nature. Though this might seem radical to those of us who've grown accustomed to buying packaged food at the grocery store, it represents a return to the natural cycles of life. As Barrington says, "When I eat something healthy and homemade, I feel more in control, more aware of where my food came from, and so deeply nourished."

Yoga is often defined as the union of sun and moon elements, a balance between opposites in a marriage of seemingly disparate realities. A yoga practice can bring stillness and sanctuary to scattered urban lives, bridging the gap between cosmopolitan and rural, modern and traditional. Kitchen crafts like making jam can be another way of bringing together what has been separated, honoring natural cycles in the preservation of a season, and reconnecting you with your food through the work of your own hands.

Activities like canning and pickling encourage living simply and sustainably, finding a balance between excess and adequacy. They can be a reminder to practice aparigraha (nongrasping) by encouraging an appreciation for the seasons and a bittersweet respect for the coming and going, the growing and dying, the blooming and fading that are part of being alive in the world. Just as yoga encourages us to pay attention, so urban homesteading teaches us to see the resources that surround us with new eyes. Baltimore yogi Molly Ruhlman, whose scrappy backyard garden offers up garlic and squash in the midst of urban blight, finds a thrill in eating crushed tomatoes in December from jars she put up herself in June, "soul satisfaction" in watching her produce move from backyard to table, and joy in sharing that knowledge with her two-year-old daughter, Zoe. Yoga reminds Molly to approach these traditional crafts with a toddler's spirit of eagerness and wonder, the kind of beginner's mind that turned Barrington's do-it-yourself spirit in the kitchen into a handbook for making food by hand.

Practicing Kitchen Yoga

Living this way takes practice. Even though she was a self-proclaimed "Southern California kid with no concept of seasonality," Samin Nosrat watched her mother, who'd grown up on an orchard in northern Iran, making marmalade, jams, and pickles throughout her childhood. Those memories stayed with the Berkeley, California, chef and writer, who worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley before studying traditional cooking in Italy. Trained in environments where everything was created from scratch, Nosrat says she learned that "it is not at odds with modern life to do things in an old-fashioned way."

Preparing homemade foods like preserves and cheese, Nosrat says, has many parallels with her Anusara Yoga practice. Both call for slowing down and breathing through the temptation to rush through the steps. Both require dedication to the practice, the over-and-over hands-on doing that is a part of the learning curve. Both mean seeing setbacks as opportunities to learn from, and recognizing that ease and mastery come with time and repetition. Grounding herself in an abundance mentality, knowing there is always enough, she is reminded of the power of just paying attention, of being present with the practice itself, whether it's on the mat or in the kitchen.

The human connections made through the activity of preserving your own food can extend far beyond the kitchen table. Before Jordan Huffman's husband, Aaron, was deployed to Afghanistan as a pilot in the Marine Corps, he built her a raised box garden. Since he wasn't home to enjoy the tomatoes they planted together, the Wilmington, North Carolina, woman learned to can the fruit so she could send his favorite salsa overseas, with plenty left over to give as gifts to her extended "military family." Processing her tomatoes gives her a feeling of connection with the land and with her husband, and it also draws her closer to her 91-year-old grandmother, a farmer who spent the summer months canning fruits and vegetables for the leaner seasons. For Huffman, a jar of tomatoes canned in the heat of summer is the preservation of a unique moment in time. Like asana, it enhances the pleasure of being alive in a body, restoring balance and celebrating impermanence through the simple taste of summer.

San Francisco writer and yoga teacher Rachel Meyer grew up on the Great Plains, eating her grandmother's homemade apricot jam.
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June 2011

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