Hagebak: Peanut butter and jelly is perfect sense memory

Published 10:00 am Saturday, April 22, 2017

I was running behind at lunch recently, and didn’t have time to sit down for lunch when I stopped by home to let the critters out, so I grabbed the peanut butter, some jelly and a couple of slices of bread, and scarfed down a PB&J in the car on the way back to work. It was tasty too, really it was, but as I sat at a traffic light, munching on creamy Peter Pan and Smuckers Blackberry Jam, I sighed the sigh of a girl who misses the good old days.

I never had store bought jelly until I was in college. Grandmaw would’ve disowned me on the spot if she saw signs of commercially produced fruit spread anywhere about my person. I think she would’ve gotten out the Olde Family Scrapbook and looked in the back for instructions on how to tell if your grandkid has been kidnapped by the goblins and replaced with a changeling.

Grandmaw made our jelly – all of it – every year. We had a steady supply of musky-dine and scuppi-dine, apple and plum jelly, and there were always fig, pear, peach, and blackberry preserves, with big chunks of fruit and just enough sweet, thick syrupy liquid in the jars to make it easy to spread on hot biscuits. We’re big on biscuits in my family, so there were always two or three varieties of jelly on the table at every meal.

Jelly season started when the first fruit ripened. If we were making blackberry preserves, we went out to fields that we’d scouted beforehand, looking for the pretty little white flowers that turned into luscious plump berries of the darkest purple. Brother and I were always conscripted for the blackberry picking trips when we were little because we forgot from one year to the next that blackberry picking is bloody work. Itchy, too. Every year we came home scratched from one end to the other from the evil thorns on the blackberry vines, and scratching our legs like crazy, trying to stop our chigger bites from itching us to death! We got our pay in all the ripe berries we could eat, and Grandmaw would dot our chigger bites with clear nail polish, and somehow that always made them feel better.

Other fruits were either grown in Grandmaw’s yard, or traded with neighbors.  Her kitchen counter would be piled high with whatever fruit she was turning into jelly that week, and all the accoutrements she needed to produce her product. She had two huge pots, and she would use one to cook the fruit and one to boil the heck out of about a million Mason jars at a time. Bags of sugar and little square boxes of paraffin, and long gauzy sheets of cheesecloth that she used to strain the fruit would be spread from one end of the kitchen to the other, but you would never see pectin or gelatin. Grandmaw said that using them was cheating, and she was insulted if someone assumed she had cut that corner. She’d curl her lip in disdain at the very mention of Sure Jell.

When Grandmaw finished with a batch of jelly, she always held up each jar to the light, looking for imperfections or stray specks of fruit, checking for air between the top of the jelly and the paraffin sealer, making sure that the seal was good and airtight so that she didn’t accidentally kill us. She was checking for a good job, but I was always transported by how the contents of the jars caught the light. They were so perfect and clear, like big old tasty jewels of fruity goodness.

I loved eating blackberry preserves the most, but my favorite to look at was always the plum, because the color was a dark pink, and the clarity was such that when Grandmaw held up the jars, the jelly seemed lit from within. It didn’t bounce off the gelled fruit juice, but was surrounded by it, and a kid with a big imagination could picture herself swimming in the middle of a giant jar of plum jelly, and every once in a while, she could just scoop up a handful and gobble it down.

I went through a jelly-making stage a few years ago. Mine turned out okay, but I had to use recipes from cookbooks and magazines, because Grandmaw didn’t have recipes that she could pass down. Everything she did in the kitchen was genius, and nothing was written down. It might be six cups of sugar this time, and a six and a half next time. It all depended on the fruit and how much coffee she’d had that morning. I could just never achieve the clarity of flavor that she did. She could’ve blindfolded me and I would’ve been able to identify the fruit in whichever of her jellies she fed me, but my efforts all tasted like vaguely fruity sugar. Plus I had to use Sure Jell.

My jelly creating days didn’t last long and for years I’ve been telling myself that I was satisfied with store-bought, but when I hold a jar of opaque store-bought jelly up to the light, I see…nothing but a memory of the beautiful and delicious works of art that Grandmaw created with the bounty of her garden, made sweeter by love.

Pepper Ellis Hagebak is a resident of LaGrange.