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. 

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