Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Strained Relations

Last weekend's rain came at precisely the right time to knock a treeful of ripe persimmons from their arboreal perches, littering the ground with soft, rosy-orange ping pong balls that did their best to hide beneath the first fallen leaves of the season.
Fruit Flies
My wife and I found ourselves up to the challenge of adjusting our glasses, and stepping lightly and carefully, two semi-centenarian kids on a late-summer Easter egg hunt. In a minute or ten our baskets were full; a half-hour later the fleshy fruits had been capped and rinsed, and were simmering away on the stovetop.

Grandma taught me how to do this, with persimmons and grapes and apples and blackberries: simmer the fruits in simple syrup, then mash them to a pulp and render the precious juice that cooks down into jelly and jam.

The mashing part was my job.

Grandma carefully ladled the hot, sticky fruit into a tall, conical aluminum strainer. I mashed and squished the gooey, seedy slop with a heavy wooden pestle, forcing the juice through the holes in the sides of the round-bottomed cone, delighted to watch the fruity pulp ooze down the outside and drip into a big glass bowl. Smooshing and smashing were the perfect distraction for a seven year old who wanted to help in the kitchen, and didn't mind pestering his grandmother all day long for the chance to do it.

For her part, I believe she was happy to have me occupied, and out of the way for five or ten minutes – time enough for her to clean and sterilize the dozen or so Mason jars that would preserve the morning’s bounty.

Every time she let me help with these projects, I would ask Grandma what this wondrous mashing machine was called, this heavy-duty metal cone with holes along the sides.

“That’s a colander,” she said.

By the time Christmas rolled around, I knew exactly what I wanted to put at the top of my list, doing my best to spell the word phonetically in shaky capital letters, starting with a K. With this I could make my very own jellies and jams, the way Grandma had shown me. And who knew what other sorts of things a boy could squoosh through the holes of his very own colander? I could hardly wait.

On Christmas morning my grandparents presented me with an oddly rounded bundle of tissue, tied with a big red bow. Inside was a hollow metal hemisphere, with holes punched in it in decorative patterns – the sort of perforated bowl that people used to rinse lettuce for salads, or that kids wore for army helmets when mom wasn't looking. 

I didn't know why they had given one to me, but they were my Grands, and they must’ve had a reason.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s a colander,” they said.

Oh, no it wasn’t. It wasn't anything like a colander, and I had some experience in the matter. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Next summer, we were making jelly again. Grandma was cooking. I was mashing.

I asked her again what this holey cone was called.

“That’s a colander,” she said. This time I asked her to spell it out loud for me, so there could not be any mistake. She was happy to oblige. “What a curious young man you are,” she said.

At Christmastime I wrote the word down carefully, spelling it out just the way she had told me. No confusion this time.

On Christmas morning I received another salad strainer.

I was baffled. “Why did I get another one of these?” I wondered out loud.

“You asked for a colander,” they said.

When summertime rolled around again, I had Grandmother write the word down for me on a slip of paper. A month or two later I transcribed it dutifully, perfectly on my Christmas Wish List, this time handing the document to my to Dad for processing. He’d know what to do.

He did. Salad strainer #3 was waiting for me under the tree.

“Odd thing for a kid for Christmas, but it’s what you said you wanted,” he observed. “Don't you already have one of those?”

Completely perplexed, I gave up asking, but never really stopped looking for a conical fruit strainer of my very own. For more than thirty years I searched in department stores, antique shops and cooking catalogues – especially after I began taking my own young sons berry picking, and struggled to mash the cooked fruit through the wobbly wire mesh of a sieve with a wooden spoon. I refused to use a salad strainer.

“What a mess,” they said.

By the time the boys were in school, both of my grandparents had passed on, and we, their descendants, gathered to sort out the physical evidence of more than sixty years of happy family life.

I found what I wanted, deep down in the cabinet next to the sink, right where Grandma always kept it. Right where I keep it in my kitchen today.

“What’s that thing?” my boys asked, puzzling over the alien contraption the first time we used it to make jam.

“That’s a colander,” I said.

So far, neither one of my kids has asked to have one of his own. It's a missed opportunity, I say, to get them their very first salad strainer.


  1. Love it. My great aunt had one of those but I don't think I have ever seen one in a store.

  2. Thanks, Jody- Apparently this one belonged to my great grandmother. The only ones I've ever seen were antiques from the turn of the last century.

  3. you make the most simple stories SO intriguing !