If one happens to drive by Marion and Robert Faelten’s Pierce Street home in Rochester early morning on any given day in August or September, chances are one will find them both standing inside their kitchen fully immersed in the labor of love they share every year, as they have done for all 50 of the late summers they’ve had together.
Early this Tuesday, the kitchen is exactly where Marion and Bob could be found – Marion before a bowl of roasted peeled heirloom tomato varieties, pouring bare handfuls of them down into a clear glass mason jar through a funnel, and Bob next to her before a bowl of boiled water and sanitized jar lids and rings, holding his metal tongs and ready for Marion’s ‘OK’ before taking one and placing it onto the top of the jar.
The couple that cans together clearly stays together (and laughs together), at least in this household. And with the 49-and-a-half years of marriage they share, this couple knows a thing or two about canningcraft. And yes, I just made that word up because if ever there were two people with the master recipes for a good jelly, relish, pickle, preserve, or Sambuca (they even make their own liqueurs), it’s Marion and Bob – patience, process, and partnership. They even include a few scoops of sugar, a dash of lemon juice, and a sprig of homegrown herbs here and there.
Actually, the two grow not just the herbs, but most of what they can, right in their own garden, and this year the plum tree in their front yard, like most other fruit trees this year, yielded so many plums, enough for over two dozen jelly jars with some leftover.
“It all takes time,” said Marion. And not just in the kitchen, for the entire garden is started by seed inside their greenhouse (Which, if you happen to drive by their house any given summer afternoon is where you would find them cracking open a couple of cold ones). A multitude of heirloom tomato varieties such as black pearl, green Cherokee, green zebra, and fuzzy peach to name a few – all started with seeds collected and kept from the year before – will all be roasted in the late summer and preserved for the winter when Marion loves to make homemade pasta and top it with a sweet, savory tomato sauce.
“A hundred and forty heirloom tomatoes,” said Marion. “That’s where you get all the beautiful color,” she said, motioning to the colorful bowl of tomatoes the couple roasted and spent the morning peeling the day before.
“I laid them out on baking pans, added ten cloves of fresh garlic around, added some rosemary here and there, and then roasted them until they just collapsed.”
Marion loves to cook. Her dream is to have her own cooking show on The Food Network. She even has a catchy name for it – “Thyme With Marion.” And as she pointed out, there is no show currently featuring a New England chef.
“My dad was an Italian butcher,” she said. “We didn’t grow up rich, but we always ate wonderfully.” Marion started canning with her parents when she was young and although she did not take to it so much in early adulthood, a neighbor who was a canning connoisseur reignited Marion’s interest.
Bob, one of five children, said his mother would do some canning, too, and she was quite good at it. “She didn’t can as much as we can,” he said, because with work and five children there just wasn’t enough time to devote to it.
“Back away!” Marion playfully says to Bob as he recounts his story, holding a tong- clutched jar cover over the tomatoes before Marion was ready for him. Bob is the “trained monkey” as he referred to himself.
“Can you grab that one for me?” Bob asks his wife as he struggles to grip a lid with his tongs. “Thanks.”
As the couple cans, looking around the kitchen one can see rows of jars of jellies resting on top of the old white Glenwood coal stove that belonged to Marion’s grandmother. The pantry is stocked with myriad ingredients, flours, spices, and canning implements. The staircase wall leading to the basement is lined with row atop row of canned fruits and vegetables of every color, texture, and taste – a virtual library of flavors all concocted by the Faeltens.
“I just go crazy,” said Marion. For example, in her plum jelly she added jalapeño pepper to some jars, grated orange zest, and craisins to others.
Marion and Bob also make their own juices, but as for Marion, “I want no part of juicing.” The method is dubious and messy, she thinks. Like that time of the big cranberry catastrophe when the suspended bag (pillowcase actually) of smashed cranberries suspended by the ceiling over the kitchen sink suddenly fell, splashing red juice all over the walls and floor as it exploded open on the counter.
“It makes a really good stain,” said Bob.
The whole canning thing isn’t a money saver, says Marion. “It’s our labor of love. And the product is much purer than what you get from the supermarket.”
“I love the different colors of the jars,” says Marion as she looks them over. And after another season of canning is over, she will view the fully stocked shelves leading to the basement and remember – “It’s so rewarding.”
“You look forward to doing it again next year already,” says Bob.
“It’s the highlight of the year,” said Marion. For after months of planting the garden together, weeding together, and harvesting together, surely turning a few more steps of this twelve-month tango keeps them in time together.
“We do just about everything together, we really do,” says Marion.
“It’s family,” Bob says.
“Yes,” Marion agreed.
They especially enjoy that afternoon beer from the greenhouse. “We look at the garden and just sit there and watch it grow,” said Marion, caught up in the conversation as she went through the canning motions.
“Did you see me put salt in this jar?” she asks Bob.
“Yes,” he confirms.
Once the jars of tomatoes are plunked into the boiling water to sit for 45 minutes, the Faeltens turn their attention to the lemon verbena and cheap vodka for some homemade limoncello.
“We make our own liqueurs,” says Marion. “My dad made dandelion wine that was like champagne when it was corked.”
The Faeltens’ preserve reserve of homemade canned foods will last them an entire year, even after they give away many jars as gifts during the holidays.
“They make great gifts,” says Marion … and anyone else lucky enough to be on the Faeltens’ Christmas list.
By Jean Perry