When I see tables full of fruit at the farmers’ market, I remember working side-by-side with my dad, over steaming pots, to put up jars of jelly. Racing the clock, and the inevitable thickening from fruit pectin, to decant the beautiful hot liquid into jars so it could cool and set. As a chemical engineer, jelly-making suited my dad. His exacting standards, measurement, and process achieved a consistently high-quality result. And you could eat it!
Dad brought home impossible quantities of black raspberries. Not for our cereal, these precious gems were for jelly. The berries were washed and very gently crushed – enough to release the juice but not break the bitter seeds – then the pulp was spooned into a cheesecloth bag, tied shut and suspended from a rod so that the juice could collect into a bowl below. For a least a day, the bag would hang untouched because squeezing the bag would make the juice cloudy.
Before we started cooking, we washed the jelly jars, lids and rings. Dad was particular – the jars needed to be clear. Some years, Ball jars were available in a quilted version which Dad did not like because that glass made it harder to see the translucent feature he sought in his jelly. And it was important that the judges be able to see that beautiful color. Yes, Dad entered his jellies in the Kentucky State Fair – and he won. For 25 years he was, I’m sure, hated by the other competitors, because he won a lot. So each year, I wanted to do a good job, and help him put the best product up for judging.
The clean jars, lids and rings went into our largest pot to be boiled and sterilized. On the next burner was the jelly pot, where Dad added the juice, cane sugar, and a packet of Sure-Jell. The mixture was brought to a roiling boil, and stirred constantly for a few minutes. Then Dad would pull the pot off the stove and let it rest for just a moment while he skimmed the foam off the top with a large spoon.
Hot jelly cannot rest in the pan. As it cools, it sets up, so we moved quickly. My job was to fish out a jar from the boiling pot and set it in on the counter. He’d pour the hot jelly through a special canning funnel into the jar, filling it to an exact mark, and removing any bubbles. I’d set a sterilized lid and ring down and he’d cap the jar, screwing the lid on tight. Soon, the pot was empty, and two dozen jars of jelly were lined up, glowing like jewels.
As the jars cooled, the lids would pop, indicating a seal was made. Dad would inspect each one by holding it up to the light, checking for clear and consistent rich color. He’d affix adhesive typed labels. One or two jars would be set aside for the fair, and the rest we would store. Black raspberry was always my favorite; a rare berry, and a tender jelly that would melt onto your bread. We also made other jellies (red raspberry, cherry, grape, apple, mint), so you can imagine that we always had a lot of jelly at home. We also gave jelly as gifts at Christmas, nestling jars into red woven baskets with Easter grass and ribbon. Somehow, all of the jelly would get used before the next summer when we’d do it all over again.
I confess, you’ll find store-bought jelly in my pantry. And though it is a far cry from what we made together, I’ll spread a little raspberry jam on my toast today for you Dad.