Ruminations on jelly

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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

11 thoughts on “Ruminations on jelly”

  1. I think you need to first draw a pentagram on the porch, wait until dark and call forth the souls of Betty and Nelly to give you the rundown on advanced jelly making. You will need a pack of long cigarettes (Benson and Hedges will work), gin, tonic, lime, crossword, cribbage board, a jangley bracelet, very thick glasses from the late 50s and an aluminum pressure cooker that everyone is sure will explode. Put on your rubber bathing cap (with flowers), a floral print housedress and sit in the center of the pentagram. Call out Nelly 3 times like she is in the next room. When she appears tell her that hers was the best beach plum jelly, that will make Betty appear.

  2. Oh Jesus — summoning your grandmother by telling the spirit of my grandmother that her beach plum jelly is superior could result in a metaphysical singularity that could very well mean the end of the world and a return to the hoarding of zip-locs, twist-ties, all glass jars and the painting of kitchen appliances.

  3. My dad used to get giant quahogs off of Washburn Island using his feet. He’d stand neck deep in water, wiggle his toes in the sand, and then dip down and come up with these giant quahogs. My grandmother would turn them into stuffed quahogs.

    Oddly enough, even though I was exposed to this until I was about 8 years old, I don’t actually like quahogs…

  4. I would still like to give you a jar of hot vinegar. You can reciprocate, or not, at your convenience. Why not go shoot a deer. I love venison.

  5. Thanks Dave. Your recount gave me quite the chuckle over morning java today. Some how the mental image of you covered to the elbows in a dark, tar like purple substance cursing like a sailor (pun intended) just set the stage. 🙂

  6. Jeeze Tom, you sent shivers down my spine with that entirely too accurate description. I have to wonder whether you’ve been dressing up as them in your spare time….is that where all of Grandma’s floral bathing caps went? Because I think Susan was looking for them. And Dave, don’t forget the tops and bottoms of tin coffee cans and “string too short to use.”

  7. Am I the only one in this family who still collects toothpaste caps (you never know when you might need one…or 20)?

    And I only dress up in the caftan/mu mus and not the floral print house dresses. Mostly because I like saying “mu mu”.

  8. If the bluefish come back next season, you can take a shot at canning them. Break open a jar during the 4th of July Parade and watch the fire department scramble for their hazmat suits…

  9. I had the honor of watching Great Grandmother Oie and her cook Nickie make the grape conserve. Julie has the recipe if you need it. Oh what wonderful memories of Nell and Betty. We would love a jar!! Ga

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