The hunter-gather lifestyle can be a bitch, but that’s the point isn’t it? To don the 19th century hair shirt and try to abide with what one can oneself catch, harvest, gather and transform into something edible? Readers of Michael Pollan’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma will understand the sheer labor involved in preparing food from scratch. Pollan goes so far as to try to make his own salt (a dismal failure) from San Francisco Bay, but I can identify with the satisfaction of pulling something out of the kitchen based on one’s own labors in the garden or on the working end of a clam rake or fishing rod.
Growing up with a grandmother who survived the Great Depression on Cape Cod gave me some interesting insights into how things were done in the days before foodies ruled the kitchen, when salt and pepper was about it when it came to spices, and canning — the act of putting away food in supposedly sterile containers — was a fact of life. The woman made her own ice cream, her own jellies. She lived out of an ancient edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook and a metal box of index cards bearing printed recipes for some of the world’s most inedible substances, including a particularly foul lime jello mold with a core of horseradish flavored tuna fish. My old man wouldn’t eat fish, and claimed they boiled and canned bluefish to insure protein during the long barren Cape Cod winters. He would eat clams, preferring to find them with his bare feet, but fish was strictly off the list.
Grandmother made jelly every September or October. The prized substance was beach plum jelly, from fruits harvested on Sampson’s Island from among the poison ivy and wood ticks; then later: harvesting bushels of Concord grapes from the ancient arbor in front of the house and turning them into jelly. I remember helping her pick the grapes, wash the grapes, stem them, slip off the skins, seed them, boil them, strain them through cheesecloth …. all for a glass of purple grape juice that tasted precisely like Welch’s Grape Juice. She made jelly, pouring the stuff into little glasses and sealing it off with a blob of molten wax. She made jam, complete with seeds and raisins, which was inedible as far as I was concerned.
A few years ago, long after she passed away, I tried to make jelly with the kids, misunderstood the chemistry of jellies, and wound up with quart jars of vulcanized purple rubber that had the consistency of a Super Ball, refused to spread, and tore the hell out of any bread unlucky to be selected to receive it.
So what in the world inspired me to do it this year? Who knows. The story is a sad one. Let’s just say I have boiled, canned, sterilized, and watched for three days as my purple grape juice sat liquid in the jars, refusing to gel. So I open up every one of the jars, dump it all back into a pot, toss in handfuls, quarts, pounds of granulated white sugar, boil it, boil it some more, re-ladle it into the jars, resterilize, let them cool, and six hour later declare defeat yet again.
Having just finished the THIRD attempt to make the crap gel I am here to say that a) given the ratio of grape juice to sugar – 4 cups of juice to seven teeth-rotting cups of sugar and b) the addition of the mystery ingredient pectin and c) the realization that the finished product is no different from a jar of Welchs or Smuckers that homemade grape jelly is the single stupidest thing I have done in the kitchen and probably the unhealthiest to boot.
That said, I have fingers crossed that three times is the charm and the crap will finally gel so I can press it onto unsuspecting guests, fingers crossed that they don’t develop some botulism from my imperfect canning skills.
Thank god for factory farming is all I want to say.
Update: the crap jelled. Wife declares it is no better than Welchs, perhaps worse.