Monday, September 20, 2010
Making jelly for fun and flavor
PHOTO: Rhonda Tracy revives the art of making jelly.
All I know about jelly making came from watching my mom and grandma make it on the farm growing up.
I harbor mixed feelings about the process. Jellymaking for a farmboy meant spending the day bent over in the sun picking strawberries, fighting thorns in the raspberry patch, or peeling piles of apples. Of course the payoff was jars of juicy jelly that tasted like fruit ripped ripe from the tree in the middle of a long Iowa winter.
I tried it once as an adult and ended up with a syrupy mess.
So when Rhonda Tracy offered to teach a class called “Jelly Your Way” I had to find out if there was a secret to making great jelly, or even mediocre jelly.
Her answer surprised me.
“I think it is as simple as following instructions carefully,” she said. That’s not always as easy as it sounds, even for an expert. “I got ahead of myself once, and threw the sugar in the pot at the wrong time and had to start over.”
To avoid the problems, Tracy recommends using the basic Sure-Jell instructions that come on packs of pectin. “You can’t go wrong if you follow those in the right order.”
Tracy (who also happens to hail from the Midwest) had not made jelly in many years. She yearned to try her hand at it again, and has found fellow souls interested in learning the art of canning.
“One thing I found out is that it is exciting,” she said. Exciting? Jelly making is many things - delicious, soothing, thrifty, Zen-like. But exciting? She went on to explain, “It is the ability to be creative as far as combining fruits. I used cranberries and blueberries, and it was the best preserves I had ever made.”
Another reason for making your own jelly is that you end up with an intensity of flavor never found in store brands.
“When you use real fruit, the flavor comes alive,” she said. You can also get creative in using fruits you won’t find on store shelves - agarita, mustang grapes, mesquite beans. “If you are going to eat jelly, it should be more than diluted apple juice or grape juice.”
While savings is not the prime reason people make their own jelly, canning does not have to be expensive. Tracy scrounges her jars from thrift stores. Once you have the equipment and containers, it can all be reused. All you need to add is sugar and juice.
For people such as Tracy’s parents who went through the depression, their goal was to move away from homemade stuff and embrace easier, modern methods. There is an equal and opposite tug now.
“People are going back to natural things,” she explained. “Sure, people are concerned with the economy, but they are also concerned we are losing those old, traditional ways of doing things. That’s our heritage.”
Flavor. Health. Savings. Fun.
“The main thing I tell every class is that this is not hard, it is not dangerous. With one day’s work you can have a cabinet full of homemade stuff. My aunt spends one week’s worth of days canning, and has all she needs for a whole year.”
So why take up jar, lid, and gauze?
“It’s easy,” she said. “If it was that involved, I wouldn’t do it!”
Rhonda Tracy teaches Jelly Your Way on October 2, 2010, Canning for the Beginner on Oct 16, and Cooking Italian starting Nov 1, at the Vanguard Institute in Boerne. For information or to sign up, click www.clubed.net, or call 830-895-4386.