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Jessie Veeder, Published July 27 2012

Veeder: Grandma’s spirit stirs up sweet jelly

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - It’s officially chokecherry season at the ranch. I found the little red berries dangling from branches in the brush patches this week and was reminded of the first summer I spent back at the ranch living in my grandmother’s house.

It was a summer of every North Dakotan’s dreams with the perfect combination of sunshine and rain, enticing the wild fruit to grow plump and ripe. My husband and I had no experience in the world of canning, but we were thrilled to get back to our roots and confident we could figure out how to transform the berries into something sweet and delicious.

So off we trudged through brush and swarms of mosquitoes on a search for the wild fruit. While we picked we talked dreamily of the advice we’d received from relatives and friends regarding the best way to make the jelly gel, the syrup sweet, the jars seal and how not to poison every innocent victim who might receive our canned goods as a Christmas gift.

Three hours and one weird tan line later we were home, surrounded by buckets of wild berries and safe between the walls of a tiny kitchen that held memories of a grandmother I had lost before she had the chance to teach me things I desperately wanted to know at that moment.

Suddenly the task I was so thrilled to take on seemed daunting in that familiar space. See, even though all of the necessary tools my grandmother used were packed away in the basement waiting for canning season, which had been skipped in that house for almost 20 years, I wasn’t certain I had what it took to break the streak.

But despite how intimidating words like “pectin” and “pressure cooker” were to me, I was determined. I was going to figure this thing out.

So I Googled “jelly making,” and my world came crashing down.

Because you know all those helpful people that were giving advice about something they have been doing for years alongside aunts, sisters and grandmothers? Yeah, there are a lot of them on the Internet.

And they all have something different to say.

I started to sweat.

Our berries were ready; I had my pots and pans, jars, lids, pectin, sugar, spoons and strainers.

I had a good two hours to devote to this.

I had a nervous breakdown.

And after verbally abusing myself and the husband who wanted nothing out of this but a jar of wild jelly, the man I married looked at me and said: “You. Go to bed.”

So I did.

The next day, after a strong cup of coffee and an apology, I hunkered down and called my neighbor for advice.

And you know what she told me?

Read the directions on the packet of Sure Jell.

So I did. And when my husband left for work, I cleared my calendar, stood in the kitchen in my bare feet, prepared my jars, put the ingredients in a pot, and stirred over my grandmother’s stove in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Looking back on it now I think she must have been in that kitchen with me that afternoon. She must have been balancing her berry strainer, holding the spoon, timing the boil and nudging me at the moment I needed to remove the jelly from the heat.

She had to have been making up for lost time, because I let go. It all came together into sugary, sweet, perfectly purple, chokecherry jelly lined up on her counter in a neat little row.

I took a step back to admire my work, and I was proud.

Then a little sad.

And in that moment it occurred to me why it had taken me so long to attempt something I knew would be so gratifying. Because there were people I could call, friends and family I could ask, cookbooks I could open. But I didn’t want them – I didn’t want to trust those pages or those people.

I was in my grandmother’s kitchen. This was her art, and these were her tools.

I wanted her.

And she had been there all along.

Jessie Veeder is a 28-year-old musician and writer. She lives near Watford City, N.D., with her husband, on the ranch where she grew up.