A purist on passion and purple jelly

By Niki Lewis Shepherd | September 1, 2023

During the last week in August, I begin to look for them. Reason tells me I am foolish — it’s the hottest time of the year — and so much effort for ten small jars. Economically unsound. Yet, each year I pick wild grapes for jellymaking.

After a week of watching the clusters swell through their powder bloom, I squeeze one and taste it. It is mostly seed, but the sweet-tart flavor stirs a remembrance and I make a mental listing of my equipment. Where is my jelly pan? Do I have paraffin left from last season?  

I choose early morning to pick, while the dew is still clinging. A tall ladder boosts me high into the bosom of the tree. When I begin to pick, a Cardinal peeks from a nearby twig and gently scolds as I steal his treasure. The juice turns my fingers purple as I pick my basket full. 

In the kitchen, I fill the sink and float the grapes, picking them free of stems. They glisten like violet peas and I plop them in my black graniteware jelly kettle. With a potato masher, I crush their skins, releasing the juice to be heated over a stove burner.  

When they are soft, I strain them through a clean tea towel scarred with holes from use. I knot the towel and hook it to the door of my kitchen cabinet, leaving the mash to slowly drip into the pan.

To the juice, I add only sugar. A purist in this matter, I let no commercial pectin taint the efforts of my natural harvest. I depend on the skill of my picking — a blend of ripe and under ripe — to assure a jellied product.  

I heat the mixture and the bubbles roll like hot lava. Now and then I skim the lacy scum from the top.

When the brew has bubbled itself down, I test a spoonful on the side of a cold dish. It forms a thick skin as it cools. I haven’t lost the touch. I have jelly.  

With tongs, I pull my assortment of small jars — mustard, baby food, pimento — from their boiling bath and place them on the kitchen table. I fill them one by one. 

For the next hour, I rid the kitchen of purple, scouring the floor, counters and stove.

I sit at the table licking the saved sweetness from one wooden spoon.

The next day, after the jellies are set, I store them in the safety of the basement. There I hoard them. And on bleak days, I will bring them up, one at a time, like sunbursts. My summer in a jar. 

Niki Lewis Shepherd is the author of “The Wintering,” a novel set in western Kansas in the 1880s.