Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America
by Michael Pennell
It would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my brother that we spread a good portion of his ashes over the northern Michigan lake of our youth on the same day we preserved and canned jars of lemon marmalade from lemons grown on his southern California trees. All of us--family, friends, and acquaintances--had numerous memories and photos of him holding up random foods as he posed for a snapshot--lobsters, hamburgers, steaks, or ribs--so, imagining him holding a lemon near his sarcastic smile helped make the procedure less overwhelming. Even my kids each had the what seemed commonplace photo of their uncle holding up a future dinner--preferably a snapping crustacean--near their faces as they feigned surprise or fear (hamming it up for the camera just as their uncle did). And so, even they, in their incomplete and premature understandings of death did not question the pairing of lemon marmalade and the spreading of ashes. From their perches on the barstools overlooking the peeling and breaking down and canning of their uncle's lemons to their peering into the murky depths of the lake as tears and ashes were released, they never questioned why.
In her encomium to marmalade, Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste, Elizabeth Field offers a history of the jam-like preserve, along with an assortment of recipes and surprisingly stunning photos. According to Field, “Marmalade originated more than two thousand years ago as a solid cooked quince and honey paste similar to today’s membrillo, the Spanish quince paste that is typically served with sheep’s milk cheeses. Known as melomeli in ancient Greece and melimela in Latin, it was used both as a preserve and a reputed remedy for digestive complaints.” In the eighteenth century, according to Field, “the Scots pioneered...an important...new consumption pattern, whereby marmalade was eaten at breakfast instead of after dinner. Still considered a healthful ‘restorative,’ it became a ubiquitous part of the British breakfast.” In consumption patterns and gastronomic qualities, marmalade captures the deep connection between food and healing, especially the healing of those in grief. While my family was not inundated with marmalade after my brother’s death, we did find ourselves surrounded by all manner of foods--from cold cut trays to heirloom baking dishes overflowing with macaroni and cheese. Hugs and comfort foods; the melomeli of modern America.
In the days, weeks, and months after my brother's sudden death, the family gradually took inventory of his stuff, the accumulated belongings of a 32-year old husband and father. Sorting through vintage toys, computer equipment, clothes, sketchbooks, and memorabilia, we all collectively considered these aspects of his life that made him him. Moreover, we encountered the difficult task of choosing what parts of him would bring him alive to his 8-month-old daughter in the years to follow, as she pieced together her father from stories, recordings, sketches, and collectibles. However, in the moments when one of us escaped to the enclosed backyard to gain levity, a moment's peace, and some calming southern California air, we couldn't avoid the fruits of the lemon tree. Under the shadows of that citrus-smelling tree, in our private contemplations of grief, we silently debated how to preserve this aspect of him--our brother, our son, our husband, our father, our friend. Rather than looking backward and keeping him alive through food-related memories, which there were many, we were considering, whether we recognized it or not, how to evoke future memories--how to remember, preserve, and celebrate a life, while restoring ours.
Writing in the New Yorker, Roger Angell, in a piece titled “Over the Wall,” contemplates his wife’s passing:
“What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first. They don’t know how we’re getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don’t know that we don’t want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don’t want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they’re in a hurry, too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election.”
In essence, we were still stuck with the lemons...the pungent, puckery taste of death--not sure how to proceed, how to digest, how to restore. The lemons, we silently knew, and whatever we did with them would speed the onslaught, the “stepping along,” in Angell’s words.
And so, it wasn’t a celebratory race to the door of our Rhode Island home when the UPS driver knocked to alert us of a dented cardboard box from California that smelled awfully sweet and acidic. My mom’s black-Sharpie handwriting on the shipping labels detailed the lemons’ journey from a backyard in southern California to a concrete front porch in Rhode Island. We let the kids scratch at the cardboard box before we released the fruits from their shipping with a knife. My wife had been poring over marmalade recipes online, debating how to preserve these lemons, how to preserve these memories (Field’s book was yet to be published). Novices to lemon marmalade, we were debating the wisdom of gambling away the lemons on our rookie attempt at making marmalade. It was really an all or nothing culinary bet. My wife’s ability to freestyle, adapt, and revise in the kitchen led to successes more often than not. But, the alchemy of preserving my brother and these lemons in ½ pint jars of glassware proved daunting. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the lemons found a home in the bottom drawer of our overflowing refrigerator, amidst the hydrating detritus of fresh herbs, random pieces of greens, and misplaced garlic cloves.
Writing in The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, John Allen confirms, “Food memories are important not just because they concern sustenance but also because they have extensive connections to other memories of people, places, and things.” Food memories are not just food memories; rather, they are key nodes in our networks, in our understandings of the world. Similarly, Deborah Lupton, in “Food, Memory and Meaning: The Symbolic and Social Nature of Food Events,” concludes, “It has become increasingly accepted that memories are not always individual, but have a social nature. Memory is regarded as a cultural construction which operates beyond the individual level.” And, in this understanding of memory and remembering, we see a social turn to the restorative process. We grieve privately but also socially. So, as Allen explains, “Memories do not reside in single cells, but there are ‘memory cells’ found in many cortical regions that form parts of networks.” This understanding of memory is key to the moving forward, the onslaught, Angell laments in the memories of his late wife. How to form new memories and create new networks, while also preserving the past?
Sadly, there wouldn’t be more lemons, so test batches of marmalade were an impossibility. None of us expected my brother’s widow to stay in the house with their 8-month old daughter. Family would take them in, the house would be sold, or go into foreclosure, and all of us would try to move forward. The lemon trees would remain and offer their fruit to future owners. My current stash of lemon marmalade amounts to a half dozen or so ½ pint Ball jars stacked staggeringly on top of an antiqued wooden dry sink in the basement surrounded by pantry items. The back of the refrigerator always holds the current jar of lemon marmalade, hidden behind more frequently used condiments and dated leftovers. Occasionally, when entertaining company or glazing fish for the grill, we ask one of the kids to grab their uncle’s lemon marmalade from the refrigerator. Which, according to Allen, may capture how memory, and the restorative process of grief, works: “New memories are efficiently created because they slot into well-established networks and associations.” Our new memories rely on, recall, and enhance our previous memories--like the marmalade, they restore.
The marriage of bitter and sweet that highlights marmalade, also captures the process of moving forward from trauma, of forming new memories. Time does heal, allowing us to preserve the sweet and release or digest the bitterness, the resentment, the anger. As Roger Angell admits in the reflection on his wife’s passing: “though I’ve forgotten many things about her, my fears about that are going away.There will always be enough of her for me to remember, and some of it, to my surprise, comes back with fresh force.” Opening a jar of marmalade releases a pungent whiff, the bitter and the sweet of memories, of death, and of life. In “Adulthood by the Jar,” Ralph Gardner Jr., queries, “It's in that ability to marry bitter and sweet that I feel finally like a grown-up. Am I reaching too far to suggest that marmalade is a metaphor for life?”
Simple KTP Marmalade
● 10 large lemons
● 4 cups water
● 4 cups sugar
Using vegetable peeler, peel the yellow part of peel in strips from lemons. Cut in thin strips about ½ inch in length.
Cut peeled lemons into 1/4- inch-thick discs. In large (nonaluminum) kettle or Dutch oven, combine lemon peel, sliced fruit, and water. Cover and refrigerate 3 to 4 hours.
Heat lemon mixture to boiling over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lemon mixture is very soft, about 1 hour.
Add sugar to lemon mixture and increase heat to medium-high; stir until sugar dissolves. Heat to boiling and reduce heat just so mixture boils gently. Boil uncovered, stirring frequently, until candy thermometer registers 220 degrees F., 45 to 60 minutes. Patience is important.
Meanwhile, prepare canning jars with their lids and bands. Spoon marmalade into hot jars, leaving 1/4- inch space at top of jars.
Wipe jar rims clean. Seal with lids and bands. Process jars in boiling-water bath 15 minutes. Cool jars on wire rack. Label jars; store in cool, dry place.
|Michael Pennell is a former backyard farmer and current Associate Professor in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. Along with teaching courses on composition, communication, and rhetoric, he teaches a course focused on social media and food. This photo includes Michael with his late brother (middle) and sister.|