We gathered the fruits carefully, using our T-shirts and the edges of dusty towels to separate the round red bulbs from the green flesh of the cacti. They were covered in tiny needles that could sting the skin for days. We were four girls wearing bikinis—impractical attire for gathering the fruit of a cactus, but what teenage girl is ever truly practical? We’d ditched school for a chance to sun ourselves on hot rocks along the creek, but spotting the ruby globes sparked something in me, and I convinced my young friends to help me harvest them.
I had seen jars of prickly pear jam on the shelves of tourist shops, wedged between bottles of hot sauce and stuffed jackalopes. I had no idea how to make jam. Still, the notion of self-sufficiency must have appealed to me even then, the notion that you could find a food growing wild and transform it into nourishment without the aid of machines or middlemen. I did not possess any knowledge of how to make jam, just an innate desire to do so.
I’ve wondered at times if there was such a thing as blood memory. Do we long for the things our ancestors knew and valued? The desires to build a fire, hunt an animal, or make jam from the fruit of a desert plant have been rendered irrelevant by modern conveniences, yet we still build and kill and create.
Was my adolescent urge to make jam a genetic hand-me-down from my great-great-great grandmother’s desire to store the fruits of her Kansas homestead garden for the harsh winter ahead? Perhaps the urge was passed to me by the sigh my great-great grandmother must have sighed when her wagon train stopped to settle in the high desert of Utah, where the sight of wild fruit, no matter how inconveniently packaged, must have felt like a gift from above. The impulse may have come from a source as recent as my grandmother’s summers working the peach canneries of the Sacramento Valley during the Second World War, converting peaches into bottled sunshine that could be shipped around the globe.
Regardless of the why, my friends and I picked the fruit of the prickly pear, filling large two-handled plastic bags as we walked back to the car we’d parked in a dirt pull-out. I presented them to my mother as soon as I got home, feeling every bit the great provider. She, of course, had no idea what to do with them, being from the wave of feminism that viewed the kitchen as a prison rather than a pedestal. She bought our jam in jars from the grocery store. We left the bags on the kitchen counter, unsure of what to do with my impulsive harvest until the fruit began to rot.
I fought the impulse to pick after that, knowing that although the desire had been passed down, the knowledge had not. I left the fruit where it grew, hoping that someday I would be the kind of woman who could harness a harvest and turn it into something that would last.
Decades have passed since that bikini-clad foraging bonanza, but the desire to transform the fleeting ripeness of harvest time into something more lasting has not. Through the years, I’ve assembled a handful of skills to make my family tree of grandmothers proud. They would marvel at my freezer and stocked pantry. They would smile kindly at the gardening efforts of someone who need not grow her own food to survive. Yet I’m sure a gentle berating would be unavoidable, as I have grown into a woman who still does not know how to make her own jam. Each summer I intend to, and then the season’s bounty ends up elsewhere: a dinner party, a gift to a neighbor, or the aforementioned freezer. As a child of the West, my blood memory continues to serve me, but there is also a lineage I feel safe leaving behind. Perhaps my Arizonan mother is right. Perhaps store-bought jam is good enough for me. ✜
Katherine Pryor is the author of the children’s books Zora’s Zucchini and Sylvia’s Spinach. Learn more at KatherinePryor.com or connect on Twitter or Instagram @readyourgreens.