Doctor Joe’s penchant for growing things increased his harvest year after year. No spot where there was space to grow flower or vegetable either at our San Francisco residence or the Healdsburg house on California’s Russian River escaped Doctor Joe’s green thumb. And that posed a problem for my mother because she was the one with the responsibility for preserving what couldn’t be readily eaten or given away. She loaded up her family members with large amounts of fresh and preserved vegetables from Doctor Joe’s harvest. She also bundled up bags full for Doctor Joe’s patients. But, every year the volume of fruits and vegetables grew.
Inevitably, Doctor Joe pressed us all into canning what we couldn’t eat or give away, just the way the good Doctor was taught by his parents while growing up on the ranch in Murphy’s, CA. Waste not, want not. After all, you never knew when a jar of pickled green tomatoes would come in handy back on the ranch! Under the ranch house a true root cellar had been dug out of the deep red clay and lined with granite slabs. In the cellar five galleon ceramic jugs containing an array of pickled vegetables stood on rough boards.
And upstairs in the kitchen was one of those old wooden iceboxes, but it really only saw a block of ice when Doctor Joe came visiting. Doctor Joe’s mother was a pioneer in the “farm to table” movement and didn’t need refrigeration very often. Funny thing about having a block of ice already set into that icebox: Doctor Joe’s mother always had her icebox filled full of fresh meat, soda and other perishables anticipating our arrival, even though we always arrived unannounced. She had no telephone and Doctor Joe had precious little time to write her a letter, even if she could read it (Italian, yes; English no and Doctor Joe’s mother spoke almost no English). But, she always knew. Now, that’s weird!
“Too much of a good thing,” Grandma Nettie, (Mom’s mom) used to say. “What’s he going to do with it all (she meant the harvest of fruits and vegetables)?” Well, Doctor’s patients took a large share, and what the patients couldn’t use themselves they passed along to their friends and neighbors in the Mission District or North Beach where they lived. My brothers and I were shy (well not brother Joe; never brother Joe) about taking surplus fruit, vegetables and canned goods to school to be given to our teachers and fellow students. So, while we made a valiant effort to give away the surplus to relatives, classmates, teachers, neighbors and Doctor Joe’s patients, every year the surplus increased as did our mother’s stress level.
The problem was quantity, or abundanzia as Italians would say. Doctor Joe’s love for gardening year after year finally became too much for our make-shift distribution system! I should hasten to say that in the years following the Great Depression, many people -especially in San Francisco’s Mission District, didn’t always have the money to buy food. So a brown bag containing produce or jars of fruit, with Doctor Joe’s business card stapled to it, was held in high regard, and got better results than TV advertising today. Joseph J. Raffetto, MD, medical Offices and Food Bank!! Don’t see that in the practice of medicine today!
As the annual harvest of fruits and vegetables increased, so did the canning efforts. Further, it was no small expense to buy all the items needed for our little cannery operation. The good doctor purchased cases and cases of Kerr Mason jars, along with lids and caps. He bought a big pot to sterilize everything. Canning took place at our San Francisco home; other times at the summer home in Healdsburg. That meant buying two of everything. Other purchases included pectin to thicken jams and jellies, sugar, vinegar, pickling and other spices. Again, both city and our home above the Russian River were stocked with these items. Doctor Joe bought cases of canning jars, along with lids and caps. Pectin, used to seal the jars of jelly, plus sugar, vinegar, pickling spices, cloves and other spices were also purchased and kept on hand. Some of the preserving process took place at our home in San Francisco; some took place at our place in Healdsburg, CA, so both places had to be kept stocked with these items, which added to the costs.
Many quarts of tomatoes were processed at our Healdsburg, CA home. Tomatoes were par-boiled and skins removed before being stewed and set into large Kerr-Mason jars. Some of the stewed tomatoes were pureed, seeds removed, (we kids weren’t keen on doing that part efficiently -BORING!). Then different kinds of spices were added before the canning process took place. Many of those jars held Doctor Joe’s wonderful spaghetti sauce.
Doctor Joe happily also spent money so that his trove of canned goods was properly stored on shelves specially built for that purpose. In Healdsburg there was ample storage room under the house. He also used a portion of the new garage he had built to keep his prized blue Cadillac out of the hot summer sun. (until other “collections” he needed to grow all the food stuffs took precedence). I can hear my mother snort and brothers laugh over my use of the word “collections.” “You mean all the junk he kept,” I hear them saying. (And, let me say yes on that too. For, Doctor Joe kept his “pack-rat” tendencies, vital when growing up on the ranch outside Murphy’s, but not as his medical practice flourished.).
You can see that preservation of whatever Doctor Joe grew and harvested was serious business to him. It grew to a scale our San Francisco neighbors would have been astonished over, were they to visit the basement storage facilities built to house quart jars of apple butter (pear butter too), plum jam, peach preserves, pickles, even mince-meat for pies, which Doctor Joe loved. Other shelves held whole pears, peaches and apples. Did I mention tomatoes, not just red ones but green tomato jam and pickled tomatoes as well. In the basement of our San Francisco home there were quarters for a live-in maid, complete with a private bathroom. But, we never had a live-in maid; Mom just hired occasional house-keepers, who came to the house as needed.
As the trove of canned goods grew, Doctor Joe had shelves built from floor to ceiling in the “maid’s” room and that became our basement “warehouse” for a great quantity of home-canned goods. Eventually, shelves were even built throughout the bedroom and on into the maid’s closet, all to hold those canned goods. Doctor Joe had also planned to build floor-to-ceiling shelves in the maid’s shower, but instead that shower came to be used for storing new cases of canning jars and to reuse any empty jars. When the shower was full, four or five cases of new, unused canning jars (maybe more) were placed in the furnace room of our home.
Another problem my brothers and I had: Doctor Joe didn’t often get around to pruning his fruit trees at the Healdsburg property (or the huge Gravenstein apple tree in the back yard of our San Francisco home). Failure to properly prune fruit trees right after New As year’s passed we harvested more and more undersized apples, pears, peaches and figs. That’s why we all came to hate peeling small fruits, which often slipped out of our hands. Worse, we weren’t allowed to throw the “drops” away! Doctor Joe insisted we pick any dropped fruit off the floor, wash it in the kitchen sink and finish peeling them. Why not? “The canning process scalded the fruit after all,” commented Doctor Joe more than once! You might wonder why we didn’t simply throw “drops” into the garbage disposal when the good Doctor wasn’t looking. Good thinking, but that was before the disposal was invented and became a standard kitchen appliance.
Clearly, the situation had gotten far out of hand before my mother put her foot down and took Doctor Joe to task. Here’s what pushed her over the top. Brother Joe and I had been made responsible for cleaning and checking the many stored jars of preserved fruits, vegetables, relishes, pickles, jams, jellies and juices. We had to do this task on a monthly basis or lost our allowance for that month. We quickly learned that on a properly sealed jar the metal lid’s center was concave after the jar came out of the sterilizer and cooled down. That cooling sucked on the lid and pulled it down to make the seal. Any stored jar whose lid had popped back up was taken out of storage and opened. We discarded the contents of all jars that lost their seals to avoid food poisoning. But monthly inspections didn’t synchronize with the fact that each kind of food or vegetable had a different time frame before failure. Worse, some of the jars, after losing their seal, would start fermenting, resulting in a build-up of pressure inside the jar.
One evening after dinner, as we watched the Milton Berle show, we all heard a muffled thump coming from the basement. Before we had a chance to investigate there were two other “thumps.” We all descended the blue-carpeted stairs to the basement (what we always called “down below.”). There we found some of the preserved fruits had fermented to the extent the pressure burst the jars and spilled the contents over many of the other jars. What a mess!! We placed unbroken jars in the turkey roaster and the blue enamel canner. We held the lid to the canner on just in case movement caused another jar to blow. Brother Joe and I very carefully took the jars up to the kitchen where Doctor Joe, himself handled the inspection and opened all bad and broken jars.
Only the home-canned wild mushrooms Doctor Joe received from some of his Italian patients were thrown out. That was because some of his aging patients had trouble telling the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. These weren’t the white button mushrooms you see in the super market. One of his patients died and two others in the same family got very sick from poison mushrooms, so Doctor Joe just wouldn’t chance eating them. Home canning doesn’t occur as much in major cities today. The time it takes, and the cost, makes it far easier to buy what you need at the supermarket. Although, once in a while you still might see a death reported from someone eating home-canned goods. If the lid bulges up throw it away. If the jar leaks, throw the contents down the drain.
Today, our canning efforts would have been looked upon as a cottage industry, but on the east coast was a Raffetto family that went from cottage industry to commercial. They specialized in bottling brandied cherries, peaches, pears, etc. with the Raffetto name on the label. As a health insurance marketer I used to buy various Raffetto brand preserves. My clients’ favorite, by far, was the big jars of Raffetto Bing cherries, which were preserved in a wonderful potent brandy. I was often asked if my Christmas gift was “home made.”
Our mother used the “exploding jars” incident to greatly reduce the quantity of preserved items in storage at both our San Francisco home and Healdsburg summerhouse. She began asserting herself on what she would prepare and can and how much. No more would she use the tiny apples that abounded because Doctor Joe couldn’t bring himself to prune fruit trees or thin the fruit crop. Us kids were pleased not to be pulling skins off golf-ball sized peaches and no longer had to try and peel small apples that seemed to jump out of our hands and onto the floor.
There was one pear tree next to the house in Healdsburg that always produced large Bartlett pears. That happened accidentally one summer when my brother Joe and I were assigned to paint the Healdsburg place. I was on a ladder right by a hole where an old stovepipe had been. A nest of yellow-jacket bees had taken up residence. To paint the eves above that hole, I kept reaching over from the ladder and putting fresh paint where the increasingly angry bees came out. They would fall to the ground, but the number of bees grew and as it got hotter the paint dried more quickly. Not only did I lose my battle with the bees, I also lost my balance and the ladder started toppling. I managed to grab onto that pear tree and rode it down to the ground. In the process branches and pears from the tree got stripped away, but save for some bumps (mostly bee stings) scratches and bruises I wasn’t hurt. There was a big splotch of white paint by that pear tree for years after, but it produced the biggest and best pears year after year.