I flicked on the light switch and descended the cellar stairs, old and brown and half-rotten planks of wood, each one sloping downward, giving me the feeling that I was falling forward. The cellar is shared by the other family in our house, but until that point I had no idea they were using it. The box was heavy, so I had to balance my weight by pushing against the walls with my elbows. They became sticky with dirt and cobwebs along the way. The cellar floor was just dirt and broken bricks. I looked around the small, dim room, and then saw three ancient wooden cabinets, propped up on a corner, the doors held shut by rusty latches.
I stepped forward and opened the first one. Dozens of jars beamed back at me, the light reflecting off their red metal lids and smooth glass exteriors, revealing the contents: plums, apricots, squash. Then I opened the door to the second cupboard. Even more jars stared back at me, proud and modern. Altogether I counted 140 jars in the two cupboards, 37 of which alone contained pickles. Most of them were marked ‘2011’, but there were a few jams that bore the mark ‘2005.’ I imagined these were the last resort: what our neighbors would eat in the middle of a thermonuclear winter when they finally ran out of everything else.
The third cabinet was a little creepy. Somebody had scrawled the numbers 666 in pencil on the door. But I had no place to put our jams, so I breathed in and opened it. It was empty, save for a box of brown rotten carrots. No gateway to hell here. I tossed the carrots on the floor and slid our two dozen jars of plum juice and jam onto the top shelf, and closed the latch. Then I sprinted back up the old stairs and strode into our kitchen, where I announced: “Honey, the neighbor’s wife is even crazier than you are. She’s got 140 jars of food down there. She’s even got 37 jars of pickles. Thirty seven! Can you believe it?”
“Normal,” my wife shrugged, standing over a simmering pot of boiling plums. “And just think how many she’ll put away before winter,” she took a spoonful of sweet juice from the surface and licked it. “It’s only the start of fruit season.” Only the start? For weeks we have been putting away food for the winter. First it was the bags and boxes of strawberries and cherries and blueberries. We even acquired a new deep freezer to store them all. Next were the buckets of chantarelles. Our kitchen became something of a chantarelle factory. Wash them, slice them, fry them in butter, let them cool and pack them into plastic containers.
When the freezer was at last full, we turned to jams and juices. Last week was apple jam and redcurrant juice. This week it’s plums. On one hand it seems cozy and traditional to make and store food. On the other hand, I feel like I am living with a very strange woman. Of all things a person could do, read a book, listen to music, or go for a swim – she prefers to head to the market, buy a few boxes of fruit, and toil over a hot stove. In my deeply American mind, this makes no sense. Food is always available at the nearest store. If you have a craving for pickles, go get one jar. There’s no need for 37! But in my wife’s mind, we need to store up. It’s as if she starved one winter of her life, and is determined to never repeat the experience again.
It’s always been this way. Years ago during our honeymoon, she located a number of yellow mushrooms beneath a tree. Even though we were staying at a hotel and had no access to a kitchen of any kind, she had the urge to gather them, bring them home, and devour them at once. I managed to convince her to leave them there by telling her that they were poisonous, which they probably were but still, I didn’t even notice them to begin with. This summer we went to Kihnu Island and rented some bikes to ride around the island. Near the lighthouse, she started to encounter wild strawberries. A small dot of red on the side of the road would catch her eye and then she would stop and stoop down to gather them. In half an hour, we must have traveled 100 meters, because she had to pause every 30 seconds to collect the tiny forest berries. “I just can’t help it,” she said to me, a little guilty. “I just have to eat them. It’s what I am programmed to do.”
Maybe the reason I am more suspicious of nature is because where I grew up on the East Coast of the US, it was hard to tell the difference between the edible and poisonous berries. At least if you got them at the shop, you knew they were unlikely to make you sick or hallucinate. My good friend bought a book on mushrooms just so that he could start to gather the wild ones that grew so abundantly beside the river near his house. Sometimes it was hard to tell which ones were safe to eat. He would leave them under a glass over night. If spores had accumulated below the mushroom by the next morning, they were poisonous. If they hadn’t, the mushrooms were good. He told me that he only met one other guy while he was out collecting mushrooms by the river, a Pole. He said the Pole had four plastic buckets, two suspended from each arm. He was pacing around feverishly, trying to collect as many as possible.
“Can you believe it? All of these mushrooms out here and we’re the only ones picking them,” the Pole told my friend, mushrooms spilling from the tops of his buckets. Then he shook his head and said, “You Americans are all crazy.”