All weekend it was food, food and more food. Digging beets, cooking beets, pickling beets, canning pears and peaches, blanching and skinning and freezing tomatoes.
I made food until my back ached from standing slightly stooped, at the cutting board. I worked until the Ball jars stood in neat rows, each packed with product -- the dark maroon of beets, the amber of pears. Cuts on my hands burned with the acid from tomatoes, and the countertop was stained with the juice of beets.
"Imagine doing this on a wood-burning cookstove," my wife, Marypat, said.
That was exactly what I'd been imagining through the hours. Not so much the cookstove slavery, but the thousands of days -- even years -- spent by humans making food, in all the ways back down the tunnel of generations.
I thought of Inuit in the high Arctic, butchering caribou, rendering tallow, or drying fish with black flies clouding around their heads. I thought of American Indians knocking wild rice into canoes. I thought of the gluttony and urgency of salmon runs. I thought about picking gravel out of lentils, sifting kernels of rice, gathering eggs, building smoky fires to cure meat, laying fish fillets on rocks in the sun, digging a root cellar, stacking carrots and parsnips and turnips in the cool, earthy darkness.
For us, the processing and growing of food is a sideline. After all, there is always the grocery store. If hail ruins the garden or drought withers it, we won't starve. We won't even miss a meal. There is always food filling the aisles, coming from somewhere the hail didn't fall.
At the end of our day making food, we still had to make dinner, a warm, out-of-the-ground medley of vegetables and salads, followed by pear cobbler. It felt like eating the sun and the rain and the soil.
I also considered the chores still ahead. More garden produce, neighborhood plums to pick and make preserves from, green beans to pickle and cucumbers and pumpkins and zucchini. Then months beyond that, in the waning of the year, the hunting for elk or deer. I pictured the sagging shelves loaded with wealth, the brimming freezer. The image held so much satisfaction that I salivated.
This is work at its most elemental, work I have grown distant from. Yes, I indulge time and effort here and there, feel the rewards, revel in the connection. But in the span of a year, it amounts to nothing. I've largely forgotten what it means to render the fruits of the earth into the food that will keep me alive another day.
I spoke to an Oneida elder not long ago who remembered the time before people had nine-to-five jobs. "When I was growing up, nobody had a job," she said. "We ate what we grew and hunted and fished. We built our homes from the forest. That was our work."
I have come so far from that consciousness that in the midst of putting up food I catch myself thinking of the "important" tasks on my to-do list: Reading for a class I'm teaching, the story I'm in the middle of writing. I've got to get back to work, I think.
I talk, sometimes, about working to put food on the table. A university pays me to teach a seminar. The money goes in the bank. I use it to go to the grocery store and haul back packaged food. I put it away. We cook and eat it.
Money in the bank is a satisfying feeling, the assurance that the next trip to the store is covered. And my hands won't sting with tomato juice. I won't have to haul a carcass out of the forest, get blood on my hands, cut and chop and package. Someone else does that. Someone else pulls the beets out of the warm soil, knocks the dirt off, washes them, cooks them, cans them and sends them to a store near me.
But sometimes, in the heart of winter, I go down to the basement room where we keep our canned food. I open the cupboard full of shelves. The jars gleam dully in the shadows. Beans, peaches, jams, pickles, row on row. I kneel. I reach out and hold the heavy, smooth quart jars. I count them, thinking about peaches on my breakfast cereal.
This is what it feels like to fondle the contents of a trunk full of jewels, I think. Only better, because you can't eat gold.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.