I can’t say exactly why, but as a youngster, my mother and I forged a real bond in the garden and the kitchen. I was always first in line to help plant the seeds, and even though I didn’t love weeding, I understood its value and therefore just gritted it out in the hot summer sun. I was also first in line to lick the beaters and to receive hot cookie pans to carefully unload the treats onto brown paper sheets to cool. I may have snuck a flawed thumbprint, snickerdoodle or you-name-it, feeling justified at the thought that she would not want to pack a broken cookie into the freezer.
As much as I liked the growing of vegetables and the general doings in the kitchen, it was helping my mother with her crabapple jelly that I recall most fondly. The tree in question wasn’t our tree; it lived on a neighbor’s place. The neighbor had no use for the tree, except that it produced breathtaking blooms in the spring — but come fall, the overripe and rotting crabapples and the hornets and drunken robins that the fruit attracted caused our neighbor to reconsider.
I don’t remember how it happened exactly, but one day my mother announced that she had gotten permission to pick from our neighbor’s crabapple tree, and that she was going to make jelly and butter from the bounty. I was excited. I was first in line to offer to climb the tree and help pick — and help pick, I did. It was at the same time exciting and mentally intoxicating.
That first year we may have picked about 10 gallons of the pecan-sized fruit. In later years, the yield was more or less, but there always seemed to be plenty. I was fascinated with the process of processing. First, the crabapples were washed and stemmed, and then they were boiled. My job was to take the boiled apples and mash them through a conical sieve using a wooden pestle that was matched to it, collecting the juice in a bowl below and placing the pulp in a piece of tightly woven cotton for further juice extraction.
All of the pulp went in one direction — to be made into crabapple butter as I learned later — and all of the thrice-filtered juice went back into a pot to be simmered with spices, sugar and pectin. And as the liquid rolled and bubbled, it developed a layer of foam that my mother called scum. I was assigned the task of stirring and skimming the scum and depositing it into a bowl. As the scum jelled, I would sample it — tart, sweet, spicy, complex, summer sunshine, games of kick the can were all contained in that flavor.
Once sufficiently boiled, my mother would single-handedly mete out portions of the liquid and carefully transfer them to decorative jelly jars and deftly float molten wax on the surface. She took extreme care that no air bubbles were incorporated and that no wax or jelly stuck to the glass above the seal. Once cooled, the jars sat in a row, like crystals, perfectly clear, with hints of yellow and pink.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was witnessing the making of award-winning crab-apple jelly in our ordinary old kitchen. I barely recall the jelly accompanying us to the Minnesota State Fair, but I remember my mother’s tears of joy when a grand champion ribbon was awarded. I was a proud kid.
Whether you’re putting up your ribbon-winning pickles for the 10th time or making your first batch of blueberry preserves, I’d love to know what you’re up to this season. Please send me a note and a photo or two (at least 300 dpi, jpeg), if available, at email@example.com, and the whole works may just wind up in a future issue.
See you in November,
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.