A basket filled with homemade preserves and jams left by a friend on the front porch of my Raleigh home. A batch of soup made from scratch and sent over when I’m feeling under the weather. A sack of fresh tomatoes or a vase of flowers — just because. I have a name for these random acts of generosity: Mason jar kindness.
The tradition of giving away canned goods and produce from backyard gardens has long been a gesture of affection. For African American families, it’s also served historically as a way of letting visiting relatives — those who left the South for other areas of the country during the Great Migration — take a little piece of home back to places like New York City or Washington, D.C. Those jars of sustenance are reminders of the soil on which one was born.
My maternal grandfather, Papa, always sent dinner guests away with something from his pantry. You couldn’t leave my grandparents’ home without toting a jar of crunchy bread-and-butter pickles, savory pickled watermelon rinds, or sugary pear preserves. It was his way of preserving important relationships. Every time you reached for that jar filled with deliciousness, you’d think of Papa.
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For my family, the act of sharing food cemented a bond between households and generations. It was hospitality born of necessity, because in the Jim Crow South, home-prepared foods served as guaranteed goodness to offset the hostility and uncertainty that Black folks may have encountered during travels outside of the home.
I’ve tried to carry on this tradition of generosity even though I lack the space for a garden or the talent for canning. I’ll pick up produce from the farmers market — German Johnson and Cherokee Purple tomatoes, or sweet fall Golden Delicious and Pink Lady apples — for the people I love. For several years, I served as the food, health, and beauty chair of the North Carolina Museum of History’s annual African American Cultural Celebration, which kicks off Black History Month by bringing together Black farmers, bakers, and restaurant owners to share their own stories of Mason jar kindness. Every year, when I hear them speak of learning to cook from grandparents, their tales transport me back to my own grandfather’s double-lot garden all those years ago. I see the two apple trees whose branches met in the sky, forming an endless bridge of hope for me.
During those meditative moments in the garden with my Papa, the natural beauty of the world inspired me to capture it all in word images: the smokehouse; the goldfish pond stocked with bright orange swimmers; the doghouse and rabbit cages filled with their respective inhabitants. I can still hear the chatter from my cousins and sisters. And I can taste the peach and pear preserves that Papa would lovingly can and pack into my parents’ fauxwood-paneled Mercury station wagon to send back home with us.
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I imagine that the tradition of sharing homegrown and homemade food comes not just from African American families like my own, but from any working-class family with little money but lots of watermelons, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes grown in backyard gardens. Meager resources express themselves in kindness. I have to confess that I was known to pay a former handyman with a little bit of cash along with a package of thinly sliced Johnston County Ham and homemade peach preserves wrapped in a whole lot of appreciation. And did I mention that he would bring me pork tenderloin biscuits, still warm? Or produce from his garden, garnished with friendship and affection?
The offering is free, but the gift is priceless. “It’s heartwarming,” says Carol Quigless, a retired private chef. Her father, Milton D. Quigless Sr., founded the historic Quigless Clinic-Hospital in Tarboro in 1946 to provide health care to the African American community when there were no other options. To the larger world, Dr. Quigless may have been a big mover and shaker, but at home, he was just another friend, neighbor, and father who taught his daughter the value of Mason jar kindness. “Daddy liked to give away brandied whole figs in Mason jars,” Carol remembers. “He was proud of them. The Mason jar showed off the craftsmanship of the gift.”
Canning and gardening, like friendship and parenthood, are acts of faith. They require weathering storms, droughts, and uncertainty. My folks share a deep respect for those sacred spaces where vegetables, fruits, and herbs grow, and for the kitchens where they’re transformed into delicious nourishment for the body and soul. We understand, though, that there’s more to a garden than what’s planted in the earth, and more to a Mason jar than the pickles stuffed inside it. There’s a lot of love there. And that’s something that we can all preserve.
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