Domestic divas make food for the soul; and maybe just a few mistakes

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The call of a row of Concord grapes and some unexpected wild elderberries that grew up beside Wayne’s barn lured me into burning in the kitchen this week . . . literally and figuratively.

Wayne’s late wife, my dear cousin Linda, had made a business of concocting 56 “shades” of jelly and selling them at the local farmers’ market. Her daughter and I (mostly her daughter) were determined to somehow carry on her legacy and not let those grapes go to waste.

It has been years since I made any jelly. Gave up that activity after many failures. Besides, who needs that much sugar, anyway? But boy, when I re-experienced Sure-Gel in action and tasted a spoonful of hot jelly, the joys of being a domestic diva came flooding back.

I forgot how soul-satisfying it can be to see a row of gleaming, burgundy-colored jars lined up on a counter and knowing that I had created the contents. Well, God and me anyway.

My friend Cheri supplied the recipe for the elderberry jelly and secured from another friend the loan of one of the most exciting kitchen gadgets I’d ever used . . . a steamer/juicer. This three-part thingy goes on the stove with water in the bottom reservoir. Fruit goes in the top and a steamer basket comprises the middle section. As the steam from the bottom pan causes the elderberries in the top to pop open and release their juice, the middle pan collects the juice and siphons it off through a clamped spigot coming out from the side. Ingenious! And so much easier and cleaner than squeezing juice through a cheesecloth by hand.

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Spurred on by a good, easy recipe and the ease of extracting juice, I was soon digging in a basement cabinet for jelly jars and lids. When my first batch flopped due to using liquid pectin instead of the powdered the recipe called for, Cheri came to the rescue with the advice to use that batch for syrup. She supervised the next batch, which was a success. I’m now a new veteran of 24 gleaming jars of grape and elderberry jelly, which could be going to new homes over the holidays. Or, I could save them to provide sustenance and energy when North Korea sends a missile our way. (Not funny, I know.)

Lest you think all this was a breeze, it’s time to confess to lessons learned:

  1. I learned you need a deep pot to cook jelly in. That lesson after a half cup of sticky jelly boiled over and onto the stove.
  2. I learned that pot holders can scorch and almost catch fire.
  3. I learned that pouring seven cups of sugar into a boiling vat of liquid can be tricky, especially when old, flabby arms don’t want to hold up that much weight.
  4. I learned that a quarter-cup of sugar on a hot stove makes for a difficult cleanup; but then so does half a cup of hot jelly. I am learning to live with new, permanent scratches in my stainless steel stovetop.
  5. I learned that an ample bosom can be subject to steam-scorching.

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I had probably already learned the above lessons in my thirties, when I was serious about being a superwoman who could hold down a full time job and make jelly on the side. And maybe next year when jelly time rolls around again, I can retrieve the memory of the missteps made this year and do a better job.

A woman I met at a national storytelling conference this summer is writing a book about the legacies that are carried through generations as found in family recipes and ethnic foods. Jelly making feels like a legacy thing. All canning and food preservation is, actually. I grew up listening for the satisfying pop of metal that signaled the sealing of cans of green beans my mother had just processed. And this week I listened for that again and sighed with satisfaction when comparing the number of pops to the number of jars of jelly pulled out of the canner. They matched!

Activities like canning and jelly-making are marked by love and a legacy of generations of women, many long-departed, who blazed trails with the same mishaps that plagued me this week. As we stir our “soul foods” we can remember the women who went before us and find satisfaction in knowing they’re probably watching us from the beyond and nodding in approval. Or maybe laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief.

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