The Art of Fig Preserves

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with gardening. I love it when other people do it, I hate to do it myself. The main reason is that I’m terrible at it and have never had much success. There is one exception to the rule and it’s the only time I have fun in the garden. And truth be told, it’s hard to call it gardening. About 10 years ago I planted a fig tree.  It struggled the first few years and the root system was shallow.  It actually fell over a couple of times.  I staked it, babied it, and lo and behold it survived.  A couple of years later I planted a second one. These two trees are now healthy, huge and doing great. Every year in early June we are greeted by thousands of tiny figs fruiting and we anticipate a bumper crop. In a small way it signals the onslaught of summer in North Texas.  It’s something wonderful to look forward to even while we’re dreading the upcoming heat.

Mom & Russ with Washed Figs

This was a great year and we’ve already collected over 50 pounds of figs.

Now, what do you do with so many figs? Well, one thing is that you give them away by letting family and friends come over to pick. The thing I like to do with mine is broil them with a little goat cheese on top of them. So, I freeze as many as I can, and unpack them little by little throughout the year.

                                                         The third thing I like to do with figs is to can fig preserves with my Mom. They are the perfect fruit for making preserves, and it’s a great treat to spread on some whole-wheat bread for breakfast throughout the year.

I grew up eating fig preserves that my mother made, and we occasionally plan a summer afternoon to get together and cook up and can some fig preserves. There are really only two ingredients for our fig preserves: figs and sugar. Lots of figs and as much sugar as necessary. No vanilla, or cloves, or ginger for us. Just figs and sugar.

Mom Cutting Stems

The first job is to pick the figs. This year Mom came over and picked about ten pounds, that’s actually a lot of work. Plus, Terri donated about 3 pounds to our effort that she had picked. (Mine all go in the freezer to make broiled figs & goat cheese breakfasts!).   Next, cut off all the stems, and then wash the figs.

Figs and Sugar in the Pot

The real art is in the amount of sugar to add to the figs. They are naturally very sweet, so they don’t need as much sugar as when making preserves with tart fruit like blackberries, or even peaches. We added about half as much sugar as figs. For every 4 cups of figs added to the pot cover with 2 cups of sugar.

Russ Pouring Preserves

Put the pots of figs and sugar on a low flame. As the sugar heats up it turns into syrup and begins to cook the figs.

Let them simmer on a very low boil for about an hour, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Then the figs will have all turned a gorgeous amber brown. Boil the jars and lids. Retrieve them from the boiling water carefully with some tongs. It’s very handy to have a Pyrex 2-cup measuring cup to dip into the hot fig preserves and pour into the hot jars.

 Carefully clean off the jar tops, screw on the lids and caps tightly. From beginning to end it takes about 4 to 5 hours. That does not include the time it takes to pick the figs. When it’s all said and done, there is usually half a jar left over that isn’t worth putting a lid on, so we make some toast and happily finish them off as our reward. 

Bountiful Harvest!

Permission to Have Fun

Russ, Terri, and Michael Albert at Crystal Bridges

Terri and I hung out at the Crystal Bridges Art Studio in Northwest Arkansas a few weeks ago with Michael Albert ( Michael has been doing collage for a number of years and his works are both colorful and whimsical, and yet insightful and serious too. Michael has a number of favorite texts, narratives, speeches, scriptures, and such which have meant a lot to him over the years and he has committed them to collage, as well as some of them to memory. I thought that was pretty cool.

Terri working on her Lone Start flag.

So, while Terri got to work on her collage, I hung out with Michael and as usual asked a ton of questions. He’s on an “Art-demo and Workshop” Tour across dozens of U.S. cities. Most of his stops are at libraries where he leads folks, mostly kids, in activities using art, but also discussing and leading conversations about a number of those texts and stories that are so important to him. I asked him how he chose the libraries, and he said that he had written and published a book. He looked up which libraries carried his book, and just called them up and told them what he was doing. So, he has been driving from city to city for a number of weeks, maybe months now, visiting small towns and big, and getting to know people. Once again… very cool.

He calls his collage work “cerealism” because so much of it is found in the packaging for cereal boxes. So, it’s a lot of fun to see the images in his art, originally on cereal boxes I know well from my childhood. It’s sometimes a bit educational, if not sobering, to see how he uses the text in his work. Some of my favorites were Psalm 23, the preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address. There’s lots to choose from though, he’s a well-read guy.

Terri chose to make her version of our state flag. She had some symbolic fun and included some numbers in the work that are personally very important to her. I thought it turned out very nice.

Lone Star Flag
Paper and glue
12″ x 14″
by Terri Reed

I have a tradition of working on self-portraits whenever I’m at making-art demos, working in new media, and I don’t know what else to do. So, I sat down and did a 30 second self-portrait sketch in pencil, and then started cutting up cereal boxes. I decided to do a layering technique, whereas Michael and Terri both do more of a mosaic effect where they cut the shapes out to piece them together like a puzzle. I overlaid mine, one on top of another, and got more of a 3-D effect, which really worked for the self-portrait.

When we were finishing up, Terri asked me where the grey was in my beard. I really was taken aback. It turns out that my self-portrait is not a bad likeness, but it’s more life-like to my appearance 30-years ago, than it is now. While I was making the portrait, I was actually thinking of myself with dark brown hair. So, I blamed it on the cereal boxes and told her that silver was not really a cereal color.

There are a few important things to me about going to these art-making studio demos. I love to meet artists who are doing their creative thing and are willing to share their time and ideas with me. Michael was so generous, gave us some fantastic posters, and talked about his creative background and experience. It’s really nice to just listen to artists talk about what inspires them. I think occasionally it rubs off and something important and perhaps philosophical might find it’s way into my art or my creative habit.

But, it also allows (forces) me to try something new besides oil painting. The painting is so serious and these different media allow me to relax and just have fun. Try cutting up some cardboard packaging like a 6 year old and make something out of it that’s meaningful. It’s fun. These new media really stretch me and push me into something new. I’m terrible about making art in front of other people. I like to be alone, alone, alone. But, in the middle of the chaos at the Crystal Bridges Art Studio there’s nowhere to hide and you just have to go for it. Give yourself permission to have some fun and be silly.

Paper and glue
10″ x 8″
by Russ Reed

The Art of Chow-Chow

Terri Slicing Green Tomatoes

Chuck is my father-in-law and lives in Northwest Arkansas with his wife Marian. He’s an amazing cook and I’ve enjoyed countless fantastic meals made by him. One of my favorite accompaniments that he makes is chow-chow.

For folks unfamiliar with chow-chow, it’s the southern version of green tomato relish, and Chuck’s version is very southern and very spicy. We add it to all kinds of bean dishes, chili, and anything at all that needs a little spicing up.  We spent most of this last weekend together and Chuck was so gracious to share his chow-chow legacy with Terri and me. We really wanted to know how it was made. So, he sent the list of ingredients and we brought as much as we could find. These included 2 large heads of cabbage, 50 jalapeno peppers, 6 onions, 8 green tomatoes, turmeric (raw or dried), mustard seed, and more.

Chuck at the Food Processor

Chuck makes the most amazing chow-chow of all time. I’ve been eating it so long (since I was 15) that you can say I’ve grown up with it. He patiently led Terri through every detailed step while I took notes and grabbed some pictures of the process. Here are the basic steps to making the best chow-chow on earth.

Terri Slicing Jalapenos

The most important ingredients include cabbage, firm green tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, various other hot yellow & orange peppers (for color), bell peppers, onions, turmeric, mustard seeds, and red wine vinegar. The hardest thing may be to find fresh green tomatoes. We checked out a number of places and they were just not available, even in early July. We finally found about a dozen, mostly green tomatoes at a well-stocked off-the-road vegetable stand. All the ingredients are necessary, and you definitely cannot make chow-chow without green tomatoes.

Veggies are chopped

Starting with the cabbage, they cut and food-processed all the vegetables and poured into a large port. Terri cut the vegetables in smaller portions and handed off to Chuck who worked the food processor. Once all the vegetables were sliced & diced, some picking salt was poured over the top. The mixture was covered and left overnight.

Chuck and Marian Tasting the Chow-Chow

The next morning, the salted veggies were thoroughly washed and strained. Then the red wine vinegar, sugar, turmeric and mustard seed were combined together in another pot and brought to a boil. The chopped veggies were then combined with the vinegar and spices and brought to a boil. The empty pint jars and lids were boiled in another pot. to sterilize.

Filling up the Jars

And then the hot chow-chow was spooned into the hot jars, sealed and tightened. From start to finish, it was about 6 hours for 2 people. We did the veggies Friday evening, and added the vinegar and spices on Saturday morning. The total output was 28 pints.

Chuck Tightens the Seals

This was truly an amazing time when Chuck passed on a bit of his legacy and I got to record the whole thing. Very cool. Thanks Terri & Chuck!

Disciples Serve

Disciples Serve the Five Thousand
Oil on canvas
24″ x 18″

This is my latest work in the Encounter Gallery series entitled “Disciples Serve the Five Thousand”.  I was talking with my friend Takiyah about my narrative portraits and that I had started out painting almost exclusively my own family members, mostly because they were willing. I said that as I looked back over my paintings, it occurred to me that my family was awfully white. Takiyah laughed and said “well, my family is awfully black!”  I asked her if there was a gospel story that she most identified with and characterized her and her history.  She said that the one that most often came to mind was the feeding of the 5,000.  She told me about growing up fairly poor in the Los Angeles area, but definitely not realizing that they were poor.  She recounted a few of the numerous times that her family was unexpectedly confronted with the Lord’s abundance.  This idea of abundance is central to Takiyah’s experience of God in her life.  He has supplied her and her family’s needs abundantly and continually.  There were powerful stories from her childhood in which her family was blessed with abundance that could only have come from God.  As I listened to her stories, I thought of my own history.  My father had a good job, and worked steadily throughout my childhood.  I never really questioned or wondered where the groceries came from.  I realized early on that Dad was paid regularly, and the money went into the bank, and that was how we bought the groceries.  I knew then that God provides, even in this way.  But Mom and Dad were very frugal, and I never really got a sense of abundance or unexpectedness.  Our abundance was more a sense of “enough” and “steady” for which I’m very grateful. This very consistency was and is a gift from my Dad.  The groceries always got bought, so that meant that Dad was working, and God was providing both. 

But Takiyah’s experience was different and in its own way glorious.  God has continued to provide for her in an abundant and sometimes an unexpected way. 

While meditating on the story of the 5,000, I began to think about how much labor it would have taken to distribute a dinner of fish and bread to so many men, women and children.  Thousands of meals delivered across a hillside next to the lake would have taken so much effort.  I imagined that as Jesus multiplied the fish and bread, his disciples saw what was happening and quickly realized what it would take to serve this crowd.  They loaded up with plates of the newly created meals and went throughout the crowd, handing out delicious food to everyone who was there.  I set the scene on the northeast shore of White Rock Lake with the skyline of Dallas just barely visible in the distance.  I pictured the disciples as seasoned diner waiters and waitresses with arms full of plates of baked fish and rolls headed up the hill to the people.  This was a day of extraordinary and unexpected abundance, and Jesus’ many followers and disciples were there to serve.  It is the perfect story of Takiyah’s experience with the unexpected abundance from God.

“Disciples Serve the Five Thousand” is currently on display with the Encounter Gallery series at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Watson Hall (in Dallas) until August 22, 2019.