Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fruits of my labor (day)

I have this memory of my Mom and Grandmom making jelly in Fall. It’s a compound memory, I think, because I only remember one instance and Mom says this happened every year. I was far too little to help. I sat at the kitchen table, probably with a coloring book and some crayons, while they moved back and forth between the sink and the stove. The kitchen was full the smell of jelly cooking. That’s mostly what I remember, the smell. Like bottled grape juice, only much more intense.
They got the grapes from an arbor my Grandpop built behind the garage.

“Do you remember that time the yellow jackets got drunk?” Mom asks. “We’d picked grapes the night before and left them in plastic bags on the porch. Next morning, the bags were buzzing and moving. Full of yellow jackets, but they were so drunk from grapes left in the sun, they couldn’t even sting us.”

I remember hearing about it. I must have been there. I can see it in my head, but I don’t know if I remember the event or the story.

It’s been a while since I had a Concord grape. I pop one in my mouth as we're washing them. Sweet first, then sour. The sweet seems to come from close to the skin, which is tough. The flesh is green, sour, and chewy. Definitely not a table grape.
Mom puts a grape in her mouth too, and the taste of it triggers a memory about her great grandmother (who was very old when Mom was very young. She walked with a cane). She thinks maybe she used to watch her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother make jelly. So we're carrying the tradition from farther back than I thought.

“Maybe we should save some of these seeds, make an arbor here,” I suggest.

Mom says arbors are generally done from cuttings. Growing from seed takes far too long. Grandpop got the cuttings for his arbor from the people who lived across the street from Mom's aunt. These folks had a couple of outbuildings, one of them a barn (always a horse or a cow or some livestock living over there), and along the side of one of the outbuildings was a grape arbor.

Mom and I grew up in the same area, 20 years apart. As she’s telling me where Grandpop got his grapes, I’m silently comparing the Trevose/Langhorne of the 1950s and ‘60s with the one of the 1970s and ‘80s. Livestock, farming, as a matter of course? There was only one working farm left in the area when we moved away in 1986. Then I put both of these towns next to the very, very citified version that exists today. It’s a place I had a hard time recognizing when we were down there for my cousin's wedding.

"When seeing a Jaguar in the parking lot of the Shop 'n' Bag becomes commonplace," my aunt once said, "it's time to move." She lives in Virginia now.

"I think I'm getting a little too enthusiastic with the mashing, here." I say. "There are purple flecks on the sink. And the drainboard. And the wall. Oop! And on my shirt."
"Oh, that's all right. It washes off the sink and the drainboard, and the wall's getting tiled eventually. That's just a primer coat. Your shirt, though..."
"Ah, it's not an important shirt." Now it's the Grape Jelly Making Shirt.

Because I'm the one who wants to learn how to do this, Mom is hanging back, giving directions. She'll demonstrate something, then hand it over to me. This was, after all, my idea.

There it is, the smell I remember. It happens shortly after the grapes start cooking. It fills the house.
"Man, I wish I could take a picture of that smell," I say. Best I can do is take pictures of the grapes.

As we're setting up to strain the grapes, something pops into my head--a strainer made of cheesecloth suspended from the legs of an upside-down chair. But that wasn't for grapes. Apples?

"That was for apple jelly," Mom says. "I used to use cheesecloth until I broke down and bought jelly bags. They wear like iron, and they're reusable."

For making the grape juice we use this big wooden shillelagh-looking pestle in a big jelly bag-lined sieve. It take a little while, but I eventually get a nice rolling rhythm going. It ends up being what Mom thinks is a little over a gallon of juice.

Mom describes jelly-making as a really good activity for the working woman. You don't have to go straight from grape vine to jars in one headlong rush. After we make the juice and cover it, we're done for the day.

The next morning after breakfast, we get serious. All the jars, lids, and rings get washed. The jars get put in a big kettle full of water on the back burner, to be boiled and thereby sanitized.


Time to break out the pectin. While the pot on the stove talks to itself, Mom has me read the pectin packet's recipe for grape jelly, as well as all the steps I'm to go through to get this stuff in jars and processed. There are instructions in the Ball canning book too.


Thank goodness they both say the same thing. The last thing I need right now is conflicting information. And, according to the chart in the canning book, since we're on a mountaintop somewhere over 2000 feet we have to add five more minutes to how long we boil the jelly once it's been jarred.

"So what would they do in New Orleans?" I ask Mom. "They're below sea-level." The chart makes no mention of low altitude cooking.

"I have no idea." She admits.

My Dad comes through the kitchen, dog right at his heel with a toy in her mouth.

"Getting started? Sure hope this batch doesn't make our teeth turn blue."

Mom made a batch a few years ago, her first since moving upstate (I think) and it did indeed turn your teeth blue if you ate it.

"That was the weirdest thing!" Mom says. "I still don't know why it did that." I silently hope it's not something to do with the grapes grown in this region.

Mind you, the threat of blue teeth didn't stop anyone from eating that jelly. You just had to be extra vigorous with the toothbrush afterward. And no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school or work lunches, unless you wanted people to stare at your mouth all afternoon.

Once the water starts to boil, the timer gets set for 20 minutes, and we start to make the jelly. The idea is to have the jelly and the jars ready for each other at the same time. Another smaller pot of water has been set to boil for the lids. Must remember next time I do this, even though the jars get boiled, the lids do not. That weakens the rubber seal. You just want them hot and loose. After the water gets boiled and turned off, that's when the lids go in the pot.

As before, Mom directs the cooking from over my shoulder. I keep thinking of that mantra they recite on so many of the home improvement shows: "Learn one, make one, teach one." I guess by then you know it really well.

The timer goes off just in time for me to set it again for the jelly. It has to do a hard boil for a solid minute. The foam is starting to form. The recipe says to skim that off at the end, right before jarring starts.

Actually, the recipe calls it "scum," like it's pond algae or something. Mom says it's just air bubbles.

"It's still jelly, it's just not as pretty," she says. We skim the foam off and put it in a custard cup. I see a couple slices of bread in that foam's immediate future.

Now comes the part of this whole procedure that made me nervous to think about. Processing the jelly. Jars get taken out of the big pot -- we start with two, so that there's an assembly line going. After that, one jar gets removed at a time. It's to retain sterility.

Assembly line

The big-mouthed funnel goes into an empty jar, jelly fills the jar to about the start of the threads on the lip. Funnel gets moved to the waiting jar, lid comes out of hot water and onto full jar, screw on lid. Put full jar out of the way, take another jar from the pot. Now fill the jar that has the funnel in it. Keep on going until you're out of jelly or out of jars.

We manage to get 8 full jars of jelly from this batch, plus some extra that we put in a jar with the "scum." We decide it's time to stop for a taste test. We call Dad in to the kitchen so he can have some too.

Mmmm, jelly
Ohhh. This beats the heck out of store-bought jelly. The first bite brings back another memory from when I was little, of Mom making me a cream cheese and grape jelly sandwich. It must have been with homemade jelly, because I haven't thought of it in years.

"My mother used to do something when I was little," Mom said. "She'd make me a cream cheese and jelly sandwich..."

"I was just thinking of that! You used to do the same for me."

By this point, I'm starting to feel indignant for the slighted cloudy bits of perfectly good jelly, and decide to rename it "skim." Mom concurs.

Instant gratification

After the taste test (thumbs up all around), it's time to process. Mom assures me I have no reason to worry.

"Now, if we were using a pressure canner, that would be a different story. Though they've made some improvements in them over the years. Getting jelly on the ceiling used to be a common occurrence with pressure canners in my mother's day."

"I'd rather not use one of them," I say.

"Me neither," Mom agrees.

But this procedure is pretty tame. Six jars in the hot water bath is all that will fit in the pot without the jars touching. After the water comes to a full boil, it needs to stay in there for 15 minutes (10 minutes normally plus five more for high altitude). Then take those out and boil the rest. Leave the rings on until they're sealed.

I spend the 20 minutes after the jars come out of the water listening for the "sssspop!" that let me know they have sealed. They all do just fine.

The boiled batch, cooling down
Mom does the next batch, herself. We still have 3 quart jars full of juice after the second batch, and Mom decides to process them so that I can use them later. I should get 2 more batches of jelly out of them, plus another 2 cups of grape juice that I could probably use in cooking or something. She sends me home with a dozen jars -- the 8 I processed, 1 to replace the skim jelly in the fridge, and 3 more. I'd bought 12 jars from Wal-Mart, and guess she wanted them all filled for me.

You're not supposed to store them with the rings on, because sometimes the rings rust shut. I keep them on for travel, though. Not really interested in have a jar come unsealed on the bus.

For some reason, probably because I was little when I first saw Mom and Grandmom do it, I thought making jelly was really hard. It isn't. Which makes sense, really. If it were that difficult, so many people wouldn't be able to do it. But to a little kid it seemed like magic--take grapes from the back yard and turn them into something that doesn't look at all like a grape? Amazing.

Learn one, make one, teach one. I guess this means I have to make more jelly soon.
Ta-da! Jelly.

And, no, there were no blue teeth this time around.


Reckless Sarcasm said...

Very cool! I was so upset that I missed that. Mentioned it to mom and she said she would wait to do the Apple Sauce and Apple Pie filling until I came up in a couple weeks. Guess what I'm doing?

I think I want to get some grapes and make some jelly in the next couple of weeks.

I remember that jelly that made our teeth blue. That was hilarious. There was no denying eating it, that's for sure.

Amy said...

What a beautiful essay! I feel honored to have a jar of this jam!

Anonymous said...

I made apricot preserves once. It was for my dear father after Mom died. It was his favorite and he usually bought it from the store. Great success but that was it. I thought it was an awful lot of work and I'm a happy cook/baker!