I don’t know why the new fad for serving beverages in Mason Jars has become a flashpoint for my proletarian rage.
Actually, I do know why. Its particular manifestation of classist camp has dredged up painful childhood memories I’ve done my best to suppress.
My mother was very much into the home canning thing, which became regular events during the late summer and early fall. An antique cast iron grinder would be affixed to the edge of the family dining table, the crates of Mason jars would be out of storage, and the smell of boiling vegetables would permeate our small apartment.
Part of it was a rustic affectation but part of it also had to do with the reality of feeding a household of six people during a recessionary period of layoffs and extended unemployment. It was supplemental at best, but there was still a sense that every batch of unripened tomatoes from the garden or wild berries collected from Down Back could be put to expense-saving use.
I’d be thoroughly sick of the stuff by the time the following spring rolled around, as my mother’s process focused on volume instead of variety. If you weren’t crazy about her bread ‘n’ butter pickles or blueberry jam to begin with, the experience didn’t improve over time. One time she hit upon a formula for a brown apple relish-chutney-salsa hybrid that became the family’s default meat sauce and garnish for the better part of 1983. I grew to loathe the sight of it then, but would give anything to taste it again today, heated and served over some white, government-issued rice.
As a result, our pantry was lousy with Mason jars at the time including wire-fastened antique models that went back to my great-gran’s place in rural Maine. Our household also included two kids under the age of ten, a semi-paralyzed but active stroke victim, and a semi-functioning alcoholic. As a result, our glassware tended to suffer a high level of attrition. A drinking glass would shatter, and a lack of funds and concessions to household reality turned into “fuck it, just use a jar.”
It was a pretty sensible course of action, but one that never sat entirely well with me even at a more oblivious age. It bother me so much in terms of personal use – I’m about as shameless as they come when brute functionality is involved — but it did when company was involved.
I wasn’t raised to feel class-conscious, except maybe where intelligence and dignity were involved as the dividing line between downmarket eccentricity. We were neither encouraged to revere the well-off nor look down our noses at the less fortunate. My dad was a master practitioner of that ethos, which is what got him pegged for his PSYOPS gig, that ability to blend in with the masses while still exerting a subtle sense of superiority.
The damage from that dichotomy is something I still grapple with, but it mattered less during that phase of childhood when I began to suss out where my family stood on the socio-economic foodchain relative to my peers. We were far from the worst off folks in our neighborhood, but weren’t in the category of my classmates’ families who jetted off to Disneyland every school vacation or had in-ground swimming pools behind their meticulously maintained split level ranch homes. It wasn’t acutely felt, except maybe after comparing each other’s Christmas windfalls, but I felt it the most when it came to those Mason jars.
I cannot recall what the trigger was there. Did a friend pull a face when I offered him a jar full of grape Kool-Aid? Did some asshole-in-training make fun of me when my mom substituted one for my Batman thermos? It doesn’t really matter, because the ear-burning shame was the same regardless.
I’d take the bullet, swigging sugar water from a repurposed pickling jar while offering up my prize Archie tumbler to some jerk whose friendship wouldn’t last the summer. I’d try to conceal my panic every time it looked like the glass might slip from his fingers and shatter on the asphalt of my driveway, while every joke about my choice of drinking vessel stung like a spider bite.
It was a stupid and minor thing to get hung up on, but it was one of the earliest inklings of where we stood in the economic food chain. First there was shame, then extreme overcompensation, and then a perverse pride marked by the disdainful solidarity I practice today. (I am my father’s son, after all.)
So I guess it’s should be a shock that seeing such an obvious symbol of that old anxiety repurposed as a icon of upscale-downmarket hipness would open those old wounds and expose the festering resentment inside.