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Currant Events 



When the “U-Pick” signs start to sprout at our local orchards and farms, and canning supplies are massed in the supermarket aisles, the urge to make jam comes upon me. But so does the urge to remain in the hammock, reading. So I was delighted when I came upon an essay by Mary McCarthy, in which she claims, “You can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina.” Here was an opportunity to do some literary browsing in the interests of honing my skills, while remaining comfortably horizontal.

McCarthy isn’t suggesting that Tolstoy had actually included a recipe in his classic work, as do many of today’s authors, especially mystery writers. Rather, she is celebrating the richly detailed, factual descriptions that she believed to be a hallmark of the great novels of the past. As I found, however, her claim is a bit of an exaggeration. Anna Karenina will not serve you well as a cookbook. Nor will the jam-making scenes I tracked down in a couple of other 19th-century novels. What’s more, these fictional portrayals of fruit preserving uniformly present a rather negative view of that wonderful summertime activity.

The jam-making scene in Anna Karenina takes place in the sphere of the novel that centers on Konstantin Levin, the idealistic owner of a country estate trying to make it on the land. It is summer, and Levin and his pregnant, young bride, Kitty, have been joined on the estate by her sister, Dolly, and their mother, the Princess Shcherbatskaya. These city-bred noblewomen are determined to introduce into the Levin household their own method of jam making, which eschews the use of water. Levin’s lifelong servant, the peasant Agafya Mikhailovna, who gets to do the work, is resisting—she’s always used water, so why mess with the tried and true?—and has already engaged in sabotage by sneaking water into the strawberry jam. To avoid this happening with the raspberries, the Shcherbatsky women have gathered on the terrace to oversee the process. The ladies try to be tactful, pretending to be absorbed with knitting and chat, and complimenting Agafya Mikhailovna on her pickles, but it’s clear that this is a battle of wills, with the princess issuing periodic instructions while the peasant woman silently fumes, praying that the jam will burn.

The depiction of the actual making of the jam is too sketchy to serve as a recipe. We learn that you have to move the pan of fruit over a brazier, that the foam has to be skimmed from the surface, that the jam is ready when it leaves a tail when poured from a spoon. But important details about ingredients (how much sugar?) and techniques are missing.

Worse, no one seems to be having a good time. There’s very little description of the sensual rewards of the process—the smells, the colors, the taste; no mention of a sense of achievement or satisfaction in the result. We don’t even learn how the waterless jam turns out. Compare this with the famous scene in which Levin spends a day reaping hay, another skill McCarthy claims you can learn from this novel. While it, too, fails as a how-to guide, it is thrilling in its depiction of how Levin is brought to a state of near rapture by his harmony with the peasants, the beauty of the fields, and the hypnotizing effect of his rhythmic toil. It makes you want to snatch up a scythe and head to the nearest meadow. The jam scene makes you want to stick to Smuckers.

You won’t get any rosier a picture in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, that other famous tale of an unhappy adulteress. When Emma Bovary returns home to Yonville after a brief escape in the big city, she finds her claustrophobic, provincial town suffused with a pinkish steam emanating from piles of currants cooking on every corner. It is jam-making time and, as you might expect of a place marked by stultifying conformity, the townspeople all make their jam on the same day.

In the household of the pharmacist Monsieur Homais, Emma comes upon a chaotic and somewhat comical scene of large-scale food processing gone amok. Furniture has been overturned, pans have overflowed, and the pompous apothecary is having a temper tantrum because his servant has fetched an extra pan from a room where the medical supplies are stored. From his ranting, Emma learns where the arsenic is kept—a bit of information that comes in handy when she later decides to do herself in. So the jam making here proves, albeit indirectly, to be the death of Emma!

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