The markets and farm-stands and "come pick-'em" fields are ripe with sweet bounty, and the time of preserving has come. Peaches, plums, cherries, all sorts of berries and grapes are coming into their own, their dusky complexions full colored and tempting. Their scents in the bushel waft and temp, they dimple with the pressing of a palm, their flesh is firm and luscious as you bend forward and eat, and the juices run off elbow and chin.
The time is now for getting out the kettles and the pots and the big cannister of sugar and the jars. A flat wooden paddle for stirring against that white enamel cooking pan, the biggest ladle for the filling of the jars, with the big-mouth funnel keeping mess to a minimum. Spills go into a dinnerplate beneath, and the drips are never put back into the jar---just that moment of cooling may have encountered wayward spores or germs or other foreign mayhem which will cause the jars to spoil. Spills are thus scraped into a little bowl for enjoying with supper that night.
It's amazing how good a little spoonful of peach jam is on supper cornbread, or cherry preserves on a fresh hot yeast-roll. Strawberry jam is elegant on ice cream, and pineapple the most gourmet of all, ladled atop a slice of cheesecake and dripping down the sides.
I've made Southern preserves for many years in my home kitchen, and I follow my own Mammaw's recipe for all jellies, jams and preserves. It's a simple one---in her words, "Mix your fruit payound for payound with sugar." Strawberries, blackberries, dewberries, blueberries--all these weep their essence into the sugar in a very short time, and peaches and other stone fruits require only a few hours "setting" to release their juices.
Pears, however, are traditionally cut into little wedges, mixed with the sugar and a sliced lemon or two (add a can of crushed pineapple if you're fancy) and left in an enamel dishpan, overnight at room temperature, covered with a tea towel.
Lifting the towel the next morning reveals a great pile of vastly-shrunken pieces of pear afloat in a clear sea of syrup. Cooking converts the pears into rosy bits of heavenly, almost chewy essence-of-pear worthy of any gold-lettered confectioner's shop in Paris. As the pan bubbles away, the syrup thickens, but not to the point of gelling---that's not the desired result.
What you want on a big ole buttered Martha White biscuit is a spoonful of those deliciously peary pieces and a dripping, syrupy runoff which will require a spoon to scrape up the last Summery sweetness.
As for figs, there's a difference between fig preserves and preserved figs. The preserves require smushing and chopping the figs a bit, as well as cooking them down into an unctuous, golden-brown mass which will heap on a spoon or a waiting biscuit.
(We will not speak here of the Jello-figs craze which hit the South like an avalanche, and took all reason from otherwise-sane cooks for a period of about five years. Countless hours and jars of perfectly good figs were converted into who-knows-what-flavor concoctions, with colors unknown in the food world. What WERE we thinking?)
I do confess a several-Summer affliction of making all kinds of flavors, with finely-chopped pears as a base. Got a gallon of blackberries? Put another gallon of Cuisinart-whirled pear bits into the kettle with the berries, and since the pear trees outnumbered any other on the place, you could do the same with stretching the plums, the peaches (also quite a few trees, but what the heck?) and the cherries, raspberries, even grapes. It made a kind of "honey" of everything, proudly listed on the labels in my best printing, and seemed exotic and expansive to have so many different kinds of jam on the shelves.
Preserved figs, however, are a breed unto themselves: whole figs which have been simmered delicately in a simple syrup for the amount of time it takes to render them gently quivering bubbles which are lifted by the stem (if you're lucky and it doesn't break loose and leave you with a sticky face or shirtfront) and placed in an eager, open mouth, to be tongueburst into a cascade of figgy sweetness. They are amber jewels of great worth, situated just SO in the mason jars, and given front-row prominence in the family's larder of hard-won, heat-seared, homecanned delicacies. Of course, for Preacher-visits, they are served stems-up in the prettiest cut-glass bowl, and no matter how tempting the head-back, eyes-closed one-bite method, everyone must make do with a spoon.
All berries, peaches, plums and pineapple preserves just cook right up into a slightly-thickened fruity concoction which WILL spread on a hot biscuit, but won't promise to stay there when the heat hits it. Thick syrup and the true taste of a fruit that stays close to the color God made it--those are the hallmarks of a good batch of Southern preserves.
Just like my Mammaw's.