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It Is Time for Jelly
Nothing Like Your Own Fresh Jelly
One of my most cherished memories of a summer away from home came when our family had moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania from West Palm Beach, Florida. Dad's job making rocket fuel for what was to be the second stage of the moon rockets had gotten him a new position. The summer after the move, my parent's thought it would be a great idea if I spent a few weeks with my grandparents in Morgantown, West Virginia. I loved the idea. I was seven at the time, and the idea of getting to spend the summer with my Nannie and Papa, and my Grampy and Nanny June was the best sounding summer vacation I could have thought of. My older sister and older brother would be staying in Allentown with my baby brother. A special treat just for me!
The first week I spent with my mother's parents, Nannie and Papa. They lived in Westover across the Monongahela River where my grandfather unloaded barges of fuel for the Gulf Oil company. Their home was a modest place across the road from Dense Run. They had moved here from "the Flats" (across town) where I was born. I had a great time there making a dozen or more special "stools" from scrap lumber my papa let me cut up and nail together. I must have sawed up all that wood he wanted for firewood - hmmm, maybe there was some kind of plan I didn't know about. The next week I would be with my Grampy and Nanny June in the city at the top of Charles Avenue.
Everyone met and I went over to my new digs. I can remember the tredle sewing machine and the high bed I slept in. I remember finding out my Grampy had a metal brace on his leg that he had to move around a little - and that he could listen to a baseball game on the tv with his eyes closed. Grampy took me fishing up on Horseshoe Bend lake and brought me plastic models of iconic movie characters like Godzilla, King Kong and Frankenstein. I worked and worked to get them just right - and paint them too.
One afternoon I went into the kitchen and opened up the refrigerator. In a bowl was a handful of black berries with sugar on top of them. I asked Nannie June what they were - and she told me Blackberries. She gave me a spoon and let me eat a few...and a few more, and a few more...soon they were gone and I was in love with blackberries. I asked her where they came from. She pointed across the street to the hillside. She said they should be ripening and I could go berry picking in the morning. The next moring I was up, dressed and out the door with a little pail to gather berries. I didn't know the blackberry bushes had thorns - and a ton of them. I learned how to reach in and around the vines to get to the berries. I figured out how to pick the big juicy berries - and only eat half of them instead of all of them. Finally, I had about a pail full of berries and my Nannie June came up the hill where I was picking. She was amazed at how many berries I had picked. Then she told me to be careful because copperhead and rattle snakes liked to eat the birds, mice and rats that liked to eat the berries too. I never saw a snake but I ended up looking for them a lot more. I had blackberry cobbler for the first time that night - and made my first blackberry jelly the next day.
So Get Picking
Today you can go online and find either a U-Pick field or just buy fresh berries right off the vine, bring them home and make your own jelly. It isn't hard and it isn't expensive when you consider the product. For example, we just picked up a flat of fresh strawberries that had been picked that morning. There were some of the prettiest, reddest, tastiest strawberries in that flat that I have ever had. I paid $14 for the flat - it held a hefty five quarts of strawberries.
From that five quarts, I took two pints and sliced them up for a quick, old time "Shoney's" strawberry pie complete with filling made using 7-Up in a baked pie shell. While that was cooling, I measured out two quarts of the prettiest strawberries and clipped off the heads and split them. Then washed everything, and began mashing with a potato masher until I had all of them smashed up good. Still there were identifiable pieces of strawberry throughout. I measured out seven cups of sugar and opened a box of Surejell. I put the strawberries and surejell in a pot on the stove and brought it all to a rolling boil, then added the sugar and allowed it all to boil for about another full minute. I had already prepared my pint size jars and lids so all I had to do was ladle off the foam that forms when you boil fruit. Then using a wide-mouth funnel, I ladled in the preserves. I processed them in the canner then allowed them to cool. It took me at least 10 minutes to get some butter on toast so I could spread some of this nectar on it. Oh how I love fresh preserves.
This whole operation took me under an hour and half. Sure, I've done this before, but it isn't hard and there is a lot of help online. I walked down to my blackberry patch today and they are looking very good. I even have a few rasberry bushes there now too. That will be nice.
Go make some jelly - your friends, family and people at work will love you, I promise.
The berries never ripen all at the same time - so hitting it as best you can is the best plan. My idea is, in my part of North Georgia, USA, to plan for the week near the end of June - and wait for a good rain shower. The last rainstorm gets the fruit to plump just a little better and sometimes actually cools the summer heat just a little.
Where I live you can look in the local newspaper and someone will have and ad for a "u-pick" blackberry patch somewhere. These places have planted blackberry vines - and usually they are hybrids that have no thorns - and really big, beautiful blackberries. Sure, there are all kinds of berries you can make jelly from - and I do - but my favorite from my childhood is the blackberry.
It takes about 10 cups of berries to make one batch of 5 cups of jelly the way I make it. I can generally find that amount of berries in something like an hour or so. Yesterday, I started picking behind my local bar-b-que restaurant until a big storm came up. Just what you would expect in the summer heat of Georgia. It takes about twice as much sugar as juice and a package of pectin that is cooked into the mix. Everything is put into small glass jars with lids and bands - and a label "blackberry jelly, 2011." Life is good.
I go every year on my own. Last year I talked my son into joining me for an hour or so. I think he agreed to do it only because he could get a pint of jelly to share with a girlfriend somewhere. I was just happy to have him along. I used to have a chocolate lab that went with me sometimes. It was great having Murphy along because he could hear snakes long before I could - and he didn't like snakes.
I don't wear gloves when picking. I do have some thornless bushes in my back yard I started last year - berries grow on the second year of the wood. I did get enough berries this year for a couple blackberry cobblers - 1 cup berries, 1 cup bisquick, 1 cup milk - back at 350 until brown. good. I digress....I don't wear any special protective clothing when picking although I understand others do. I figure I'll heal and it doesn't hurt that bad. I'll come home with my arms scratched and bleeding all over. If I had gotten pulled over the police would believe I was a mass murderer I think! As for shoes - the best plan I have there are tough hiking boots that I can use to crush down bushes as I finish picking them.
I pick for a while until I get all the berries I can easily reach, then carefully step high and crush down the plant exposing more berries. These are all wild berries - tons of them - I have found at the back of what was a horse pasture. Heavy blue jeans are a must - and I suggest to those who are a little like my wife who can draw a mosquito from a desert - wear bug spray. Plan on taking a shower right after picking and spend some time looking ALL over your body for moving moles....ticks! These little blood suckers like to find a warm blooded host anytime they can. If you are in a thicket of briars - you have just decided to be a volunteer for ticks. Honestly, in my nearly 50 years of picking blackberries - I have only seen a snake maybe 2 times. But, just this weekend one of my favorite neices was out berry picking with her sister, mom and dad - and just after a few berries she found a coiled up copperhead scaring her to death! I'm just guessing but I figure they didn't pick enough to make much jelly after that.
My challenge to you - why are you letting all this free fruit going to waste? Usually if you just keep your eyes pealed you can spot a patch of wild blackberry bushes on public land. Be careful - I mean, don't be stupid - but get out and pick some blackberries - and treat yourself to either a quick cobbler or spend a little more time and make some really good jelly - half the fun is sharing what you make with only your very best friends!
Figs Are In!
I just started canning my fig preserves last week. I don't know if it is the hot summer or the right timing of the downpours, but some of these figs are as big as small peaches and as sweet as honey. I can't wait to smash one on a fresh hot biscuit!