Thursday, October 2, 2014

Pride, Pectin, and the Inevitable Fall

Long before I could recite the alphabet, I got a good dose of Elizabethan language from my dad with such expressions as “Pride goeth before a fall.” The King James Version, of course. The real Bible. I heard that one about as often as I heard “Nothing worse than a thief and a liar” in Daddy’s own rural Alabama tongue. The profundity of that twinship has become foremost in my proverbs that I’ve passed along to my children. Somehow, though, I’ve been remiss in proclaiming the one about pride; yet, after a StrengthsFinders assessment over the weekend and three cups of Scuppernong juice this morning, its truth was borne out in spades.

Grapes. Bronze Scuppernong, to be more precise. Yesterday morning my nephew, James, arrived bearing about twenty quarts of that queen of grapes. I have proclaimed for several years now that this is the last fall that I’ll preserve jelly. My proclamation has been rife with good reasons for not continuing this activity: Too much standing on a leg with a lingering hematoma. Too much lifting. Need to avoid eating the sugar. James wanted to learn to make jelly before I quit. As a Maximizer, it turns out, I’m driven to excellence. Who could resist such flattery to show off the perfect jelly?

Making jelly is simple—the way making yeast rolls, fudge, and pie crust is supposed to be simple. Only three ingredients are required: five cups of juice, seven cups of sugar, and a box of pectin. Pectin is a jelling agent, as foreign a term as cheesecloth to young clerks. And cheesecloth is one piece of equipment in jelly making that’s a must for window-pane clear jelly, the highest standard of the perfect jelly. One young man at Wal-Mart took me to the aisle of kitchen equipment and picked up a cheese grater! After I further explained that it is used on top of the Thanksgiving turkey’s breast to assist the periodic basting, he suggested we go to “Domestics.” Nope. 

The most tedious part is to ready the juice—that involves washing the grapes; smashing them open with your hands the way they used to show Italians walking around in vats of grapes to press out the juice for wine; boiling juice, hulls and all, for ten minutes; and finally straining out the juice through three layers of cheesecloth. The clarity of the final product will depend upon how assiduous you are about not forcing any of the pulp through that cheesecloth. You might try to hurry this process. Don’t. Let the boiled juice take its own sweet drop-by-drop ooze in the straining. Discard whatever hulls and pulp are left behind. I’m so fastidious about this that the first straining is a broad one—through a colander into a container and from that I strain the juice again through the cheesecloth. (Note to those who don’t like to discard anything: there are recipes available for making muscadine pies using the hulls—the Scuppernong is in the Muscadine family. Fellow poet in South Carolina, Susan Meyers, sent me a recipe one year, but I haven’t tried it yet.)

Lest I begin to digress to recipes or poetry, in the manner of my old fave, Charles Lamb, let me weave back to jelly—and back to another essential, pectin. If you use precisely the amounts of sugar and grape juice recommended, and add one small package of pectin, your juice will surely jell. When pectin was not readily available, my mother had to add extra sugar and cook it longer to produce the perfect batch. And after the strengths assessment, I learned one of my strengths is Maximizer, it was crystal clear that my personality revels in the comparatives and superlatives, more and most. The perfect batch is what I always seek.

And yesterday James was going to assist in that process. He helped me collect the needed equipment: the quilted glass or simple pint jars; a dry measure for the sugar and liquid measuring cups for the juice; a bowl to hold the pre-measured sugar; the copper kettle for keeping scalding hot water at all times; the eight-quart stock pot, the boiling bath pot with tongs to put in and remove the jars; the strainer to skim off the foam on top; the wide-mouth funnel; and tips with a rubber seal and metal rings to screw onto the filled jars.

Remember the formula? Five cups of juice, seven cups of sugar, one package of pectin. Now after James had assisted with the scalding, measuring, stirring, ladling, sealing, transferring to the boiling bath, and removing from the boiling bath the six twelve-ounce jars for one batch of jelly, he felt that he had learned enough! A quick study, I guess. He pointed out success in that the juice on the strainer was already jelling. He and I tasted the last of the already-jelling juice he had poured into a custard cup and declared it perfect. Meantime, I noted that we had at least enough juice to make two more batches.

Another part of my strengths assessment revealed something I already knew: I’m not deliberative at all about starting a project, but once it’s started, I want to finish it. Now. So I continued the process alone through two more perfect batches. By then it was approaching seven o’clock and there was no hot meal on the stove waiting for my hungry husband. Not even a dinner plan. And then there was that kitchen sink and its hour’s worth of sticky cleanup. The remaining three cups of juice would have to wait. I may be able to discard hulls, but no way will I ever throw away strained scuppernong juice. 

After cleanup and a cobbled-up supper, I said to my grandson, Nicholas, “If I use seven cups of sugar for five cups of juice, how much sugar will I use for three cups of juice.” For me, this equation is higher math. Still, when it comes to cooking, I would double-check his math in the morning when my brain cells would be brightest.

So with the big eye this morning, I’m awake at four. I measure 4.2 cups of sugar into a bowl. And then the pectin—yipes! I had forgotten to figure out the amount of pectin last night. Higher math again. The whole package was one-third of a cup. 

Everything is in readiness: the boiling bath is just under a boil, the two pints and one half-pint have been scalded; the tips and rings are ready to be scalded at the last moment; the three cups of juice have come to a rolling boil that I couldn’t stir down; and now I take the final step of pouring in the exact amount of sugar, bringing the pot back to a boil, and setting the timer for one minute. Exactly. After that one frantic minute of stirring, I remove the stock pot from the heat, skim off the foam, and begin to ladle juice into hot jars.

I affix the hot tips and lids and lower the jars gingerly into the boiling bath for a five-minute boil. I pick up the strainer and ladle for cleanup. Oh, rats! No evidence of jelling at all. The math must have been wrong: it needed more sugar.

And, here, dear reader, if you are a close reader, you will have jumped ahead of me: you have probably nailed it. I glanced to the left at the little white bowl that still held my measured tablespoons of pectin.

And now I’m faced with not ever knowing (I’m also one whose strengths scored high in Input and I love to know) whether our sugar and pectin proportions might have yielded a perfect scuppernong jelly. What I do know is this: in my early published poem, “Fusion,” the last line of the first stanza is “all fall.” That I know. 

       But, I know also that James and I each will have a perfect pint of scuppernong syrup to drizzle over pancakes. With one little half-pint left over to give a good friend.  See how my brain is always thinking, processing, reflecting, or like my GPS Rhoda, recalculating, all indicative of my number one strength, Intellection, i.e., understanding, or the need to know. 

The somewhat surprising downside of that strength is that it requires some isolation. In my case, daily. Forgive’s my nap time now. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Entertaining in the South, Ya'll

[Note: Published first in the 1990s when I had a writing gig with a local newspaper in Savannah. I thought of it, perhaps dated in details, yesterday when I was in charge of eight handsome Super Waiters who served at our United Methodist Women luncheon at Highlands United Methodist Church. This is a personal nod to their time, talent, and tenacity--qualities of service espoused by our very talented speaker, Pam Huff. Afterwards, Reggie Holder and I decided another quality which serves waiters well in this situation is a good sense of humor.]

Southern women would entertain more frequently if husbands and children complied with these three cardinal rules:  On the day of a party the house must appear to be a place where no one lives; guests will enter every room and open every drawer and closet;  and, most importantly,  those who actually do live in the house are not allowed to enjoy the party.
The first rule may be the hardest.  After all, eating, sleeping, bathing and the like must go on even on the day of a party.  But remember, your guests must perceive that by some miracle all of you have put bodily functions on hold for the duration.
Eat if you must, but under no circumstances should you leave dishes unrinsed and in the sink.  Shove them into the dishwasher.  Or better still,  use paper products. Cereal may be hard, I know, but possible.  Most cereal when soggy tastes like paper anyway. If you should use paper, discard it in an outside garbage can.  Don’t make the mistake of throwing it into the usual trusty compactor; all garbage receptacles, too, must appear unused.
And woe to the unlucky soul who drops a crumb or who spills a drop of coffee on the cut work lace tablecloth which has been starched, sprinkled, and waiting in the refrigerator for over six months to be ironed just for this special event.  (My friend, Ann Taylor) holds the record here; once she kept a sprinkled tablecloth in the freezer for four years in dread of ironing it.)
Granted the family should be allowed to sleep in their beds the night before, but it goes without saying that all beds shall not only be made, but the covers should be so tightly drawn and wrinkle-free that the thought of sitting down on a bed  to, let’s say, put on a sock, would seem sinful.
Bathing creates the worst logistics.  Do not assume that guests will not wander into that upstairs bathroom, no matter how remote.  I have lived in a house with four toilets and, while entertaining,  have had each in use simultaneously; therefore, damp towels and dripping shower doors must be considered.
One simple solution is to insist that the family bathe the night before.  Or you could turn off the water to the bathrooms until just before the guests arrive.  But if your husband should have some last-minute landscaping that he has put off for six months, or if you have to clean the fish he has caught that day yourself, perhaps baths might be in order.  In that case, mop up the shower with your towel and deposit used towels inside, not on top of, the washer.
Now, there are bathrooms and there are powder rooms.  In the South we powder our noses whereas Yankees, I think, simply use the bathroom.  If you are fortunate enough to have a separate powder room, make it off-limits at all times to children and husbands. It will save much gnashing of teeth when you find those starched lacy hand towels soiled, and your heart-shaped raspberry soap facing the wrong way.
As to the business of having fun at one’s own party, don’t do it.  Your major function at the party is to see that the guests are having a good time.  Do not eat anything until everyone there has been served to capacity.  Nibbling is about all you can afford to do all night.  If you find yourself actually eating food, look around you.  There is probably a guest somewhere who needs a fresh drink or  who needs his plate taken to the kitchen.
And if a spurt of enjoyment floods over you, beware.  You are probably dominating the conversation and boring your guests.   Show me a host who is belly-laughing, and I’ll show you at least three guests who are saying, “Ho-hum.”
Provide your guests a lead-in; engaging others in conversation is not difficult.  For example, you might intimate to an artist  that you would like to know more about how he mixes his colors.  You may have to extricate yourself from him after thirty minutes to serve someone another drink, but he will be having the time of his life.  Remember that the ultimate joy comes from talking about oneself.  Inquire as to the gardener’s ginger tree; ask the lawyer about his on-going case, or the sailor about his around-the-world cruise.
Never mind that you may have some interesting tidbits to talk about.  Save those.  When you are a guest, then you can talk.
Since I have given this problem of entertaining a great deal of thought, and since I usually give anybody the benefit of the doubt, I suspect children and husbands so often fall short in this area because of the inconsistency of the thing.  As important as remembering the cardinal rules and adhering to them,  is the forgetting of all of the above as soon as the first guest arrives.
True, you should never be caught dead telling a guest that there are rules in this house governing the use of  the powder room.  And the business about the unlived- in look; forget all that.  If a guest inquires about the placement of his coat... “Oh, just toss it anywhere” should be your reply.
If someone spills something...”Oh, don’t worry.  That stain will come right out.”
Under no circumstances should one hiss under his breath, “That’s not what she said an hour ago.”
So, gals, if you find that you owe everyone in your social set at the very least a cocktail party, if not a full-fledged sit-down brunch or dinner, simply whip those children and husbands into line.  Before you know it, you’ll be immersed in writing invitations, and in sorting through your 999 recipes for cheese grits.
That is, if you are Southern. I’m not at all certain, but these may be regional rules.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letter to a Writer

Excerpt of letter from Alabama's beloved Helen Norris (1916 - 2013)

I like to think that in heaven there is a fenced-in corner where the writers work. No editors are allowed. (Most of them are in hell.) And there are lovely angels assigned to printing anything we choose. Our individual talents and tastes will have become so refined that what we choose to publish will be heavenly indeed. And since this is heaven, there will be a whole slew of the heavenly host assigned to reading & admiring whatever we produce. There will be no competitions, no miserable Flannery O'Connor Award. But occasionally God Himself will give us a smile! Because of course we are his favorite people. Next to the Virgin Mary (& maybe Mother Theresa) he likes Shakespeare best. Oh yes, & there are angels to do our typing. And there are NO SASE's. And I'm betting that sooner or later we may be invited to revise the Ten Commandments. Well, at least the Beatitudes. They could stand a little work.

I wish I could give you The Golden Key or The Magic Bullet. All I can say is don't give up. I'm not going to!

My best to you,


Message in a Blog

  About twenty Birmingham language arts teachers endured my holding forth yesterday in my current gig as a Road Scholar ...