On my kitchen counter right now is a quadruple row of glass jars, each one filled with either chokecherry jelly or chokecherry syrup that gleams a deep magenta in the morning sunlight. The sight of them is pleasing because of the rich color, and even more pleasing because of the satisfaction of having helped produce them.
My daughter and I spent a hot afternoon this week making jelly—the first time either of us had ever tried it. Even though neither of us will ever be confused with domestic goddesses, our enterprise was a success. Well, okay, there was that the one batch that boiled over and filled the kitchen with the smell of burning syrup. And there was that little flurry of frantic activity as we tried to figure out how to get the jars out of the big canning kettle of boiling water without scalding ourselves—not to mention the embarrassment of realizing that the rack holding the jars had handles so all we had to do was lift out the whole thing. Then, of course, there were all those splashes of magenta that added such delightful color accents to the countertops, the stove, the floor, the refrigerator, and half a dozen dish towels.
Still, we produced 30 jars of jelly and 10 jars of pancake syrup, all of which turned out just fine, thank you, as far as we can tell. We had so much fun we didn’t even notice that the temperature in the kitchen was 91 degrees. We enjoyed spending that time together, especially because we weren’t alone. This wasn’t a two-generation project; it was a four-generation one.
We had help from Uncle Ernie’s recipe in the family cookbook, complete with the story of the first time he made chokecherry jelly. He died several years ago, but his recipe not only provides helpful details about filling jars and turning them upside down, but it brings back his voice.
We had help from my mother, our consultant-by-phone, who verified that yes, Uncle Ernie’s recipe was the same one she uses. She added useful advice about how long to boil the syrup and that it was done when the bubbles were the size of fifty-cent pieces—advice she was passing along from her mother. When we called the second time, worried because only two of our first dozen jars had sealed, she reassured us that they would seal as they cooled. Sure enough, a few minutes later we began to hear satisfying little metallic hiccups from one jar after another, and before long every one was sealed just the way it should be.
We had the legacy of help and advice from my grandmother, too. After all, my mother and Uncle Ernie had to get their jelly-making skills from somewhere. As we washed jars and cooked syrup and dirtied every large kettle we had, I thought about both my grandmothers. When they made jelly and canned produce from their gardens, they weren’t doing it for fun. They were doing it to help feed their families over the winter. In the early years, they worked with stoves fueled by coal or corn cobs, water hauled from wells several miles away, and no electricity even to run a fan to cool the sweltering kitchen.
Our process was certainly easier. Still, I imagine they shared some of the same satisfaction we felt when everything was done and the neat rows of full jars filled the counter. It was almost as if the previous generations were there in the kitchen with us.
Almost. Thankfully, they weren’t really there. They would have laughed at our inefficient, amateurish efforts. But I bet they would have enjoyed the jelly, all the same.