I bought four very green, very hard pears four days ago. Waiting for them to ripen made me think about how quickly everything happens in our lives today. There’s something soothing about watching the ripening process, something profound actually, because no matter how much I might have wanted to make a pear cake, I just couldn’t do it until the moment was right.

Every day I examined the pears, noting changes in their color, their texture, and their aroma.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

And as the smell of ripening invaded my kitchen, I remembered the pear tree in the yard of my childhood home.

That gnarled old tree blossomed every spring, throwing out soft white flowers that attracted hordes of honeybees and yellow jackets. I loved to sit underneath that tree, sniffing the heavy perfume, scratching the dirt with my fingers, enjoying the sensation of warm sunshine on my face after the frigid winters of eastern Washington state. Just to give you an idea of how cold it could get, many winter mornings I woke up with a quarter of an inch of ice coating the inside of my bedroom window. Jack Frost sure painted some gorgeous masterpieces! You see, for many years there was no heat upstairs – the only heat came from an ugly brown oil-burning furnace standing in the middle of the house, as big and noisy as an angry bear.

Anyway, summer passed, and the tiny green fruits grew larger and more rotund. The days grew hotter and hotter. Humid windy nights caused the branches to sway and many tiny pears fell to their deaths, rotting at the base of the tree, enriching the soil, dust to dust in living Technicolor.

When the surviving pears ripened in late August, I often found dozens lying on the ground, tiny bite marks made by birds or mice signaling that it was time to can the pears for the winter months. My parents, you see, came from what I call the sandwich generation, meaning that they remembered the rituals of their farm-born parents, even though they both grew up in a large city in southern California.

Out came the Mason jars, the Ball jars, and new lids. My father lugged the heavy canning pot out of the root cellar and my mother bought sacks of white sugar at the local Safeway. Picking, peeling, coring, and slicing the pears took hours. Packed into the sterilized jars, covered with a sugary syrup and sealed, the pears took a water bath in the canner. Once the jars cooled enough to handle, we carried them – about 20 to 25 quarts – out to the stone cellar and set them on the rough wooden shelves.

All winter I slipped and slid in the snow and ice on my way back to the house from the stone cellar, cradling the jars as if they contained priceless diamonds. I savored each bite of those pears, knowing that the cycle would repeat itself when the pear tree came back to life after the spring thaw.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Today, my four pears are ready to cook, in a delicious French cake made popular by Clotilde Dusoulier. How did I know? Why, like a honeybee or a tiny mouse, I simply nibbled. And waited.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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