(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 31, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
We spent two weeks in August at my great grandmother's farm in central Kentucky. It was at a time when it took from sunup till sundown just to travel 300 miles. My mother, my dad, my brother, and I piled into whatever car we had at the time. It was always a black car, even though we would pass others that were tan, and I can even remember seeing a blue car one time. Ours were always black. We took back roads, but of course at the time, there were no other roads to choose. It was a long trip out of the mountains, and I can remember going through Lexington and seeing hills for the first time. I had never been out of the mountains. Our lunch was always packed, and we would stop at a wide place along side the road and have ham sandwiches with sliced tomatoes beneath the shade of a tree. The lemonade came from a silver thermos bottle and was poured into tin cups that had handles. We would arrive at Gramma's house at nearly dark, and she would have a light supper waiting for us.
This was an annual trip, except for the year that my brother was expected, and the next year when he was not quite a year old. By that time, after a two August break, I had traipsed around the mountains with Aunt Bett and thought I was quite knowledgeable in the ways of grown ups and the winter storage of foods. That is what the trip to Gramma's was all about. She farmed well over 100 acres, and my mother helped her can, dry, and store every bit of produce that 100 acres gave us. Since Mom helped her, Gramma was happy to share in her bounty.
There were cousins to play with, some older and some younger, during those summers, but I was more interested in working with the grownups, since I was not used to the kinds of games the cousins played. Aunt Bett and I rarely played games, we always worked. I didn't think of my trips with Aunt Bett as work, though, I enjoyed them too much. So at Gramma's I was told: "Go on outside and play with the children, you might get hurt around all this work." Whoosh! The air went right out of my sails. I could do everything the grown ups could do with fruit and vegetables, and I knew it. "Gramma, you mite not know, but I can break beans and string beans, and I can put them half runners on a string and dry them for shuckies. I can make dyes from berries and I can look them for bugs. So, Gramma, lemme help!"
It fell on deaf ears, nobody listened to a little girl in that house. I went outside and looked around. Flat land everywhere I looked. The men were in the fields, they had moving equipment, so loud it hurt my ears to get close, and no horses, no mules. Folks were working to harvest all that had been planted. I roamed around, trying to find something to do and came upon some golden rod, another path took me to poke berries, and yet another brought me back to a stand of mullein. I gathered some of all of it. I had no plans for it, but it was familiar to me, and I found some comfort in familiar things. On the big front porch Katie was sitting in a swing working on something tiny in her hands. Katie was a cousin that I hardly knew, older than I was, maybe 12 and I was 8. I walked over to see what she was doing, and she had some wooden clothespins, some old pieces of muslin, and embroidery thread. She was making clothespin dolls, all dressed in the dingy muslin. They all looked the same with their brown embroidery thread hair and dingy dresses. I had a brilliant idea.
"Katie, I can make some dye for the muslin, and you can make pretty clothes for your dolls!" I grabbed my plants and ran to the kitchen at the back of the house. I smelled a familiar scent coming from the stove. "Gramma, you makin' jellamy? I love jellamy, long as it ain't got no seeds in it. I could do with some berry juice if you got any leftover. I'm gonna make Katie some dyes so's she can have pretty clothes for her clothespin dolls, and I need some little pans. That's all I need and I'll be out of your way." Gramma didn't bat an eye, and said: "It's blackberries you smell, and I have no leftover berry juice for you to play with, but if you want to play kitchen, go down in the cellar and there're some old pans you can use. I was going to throw them out, but I think they are still there."
Gramma sure didn't sound like Aunt Bett, she talked like a few school teachers I had known but I realized I was no longer in the mountains, so I probably sounded a little strange to her, too. I went down to the cellar. Shelves and shelves of canned food were stacked upon themselves, greens and reds, yellows, dark jellies, light jellies, oh the colors! Off to one side sitting on the dirt floor were some old pots and pans. I found three small pots and went back outside where a fire pit stood. It was made of homemade bricks, as was the entire house, and it had a makeshift grill to set the pans on to heat. Some firewood was beside the pit, so I set about making a little cookfire. An outdoor pump was off to one side, and I knew enough about pump handles to get a little water for each of my 3 pans. I also washed my poke berries, all the leaves, and the mullein and goldenrod, in the flow of the pump water. I added the green leaves to one pan, the yellow blossoms of goldenrod and mullein to another, then the poke berries to the third. I borrowed my uncle's cigarette lighter. Now here was a rough spot....my uncle somehow decided I was one of those kids who was unsafe with fire, so he came over and lit my little sticks for me, then hung around to make sure I didn't catch myself on fire. Didn't he know I had been doing this for years? But I kept my mouth shut for fear I would be sent to the back forty to climb trees with the boys or to play cowboys and Indians. I would have been an Indian if that had happened.
Anyway, I set my three pots on the grill to cook. "You makin' supper for all of us, little 'un?" asked my old great uncle, "stir it up good now, and don't let any bugs get in it." Everywhere I turned they were treating me like a child with no sense atall. I mumbled something in reply, but he was deaf as a door knob and I am glad he couldn't hear me. So I made my dyes, and since I was afraid to go back in the kitchen, I wasn't able to strain them. I went back for Katie, and could find nothing but some scraps of muslin she had left on the swing. They were good sized scraps, so I took them all around back to the firepit, and placed them equally into the red, green and yellow dyes. I drew designs in the now dead ashes while I waited for the dye to set, guarding my dyes just like the women guarded their kitchen. I compared everything I saw to my home in the mountains. There were a lot of differences, but most of them were in the people, and how they looked upon a child. They did not know Aunt Bett or Granny Ninna, nor did they really know me. I had to find my place in this other side of the family.
Finally my dyed muslin was ready to show Katie. I went back to the pump, and as I took each piece of muslin out of the dye, I rinsed scraps of cooked plants off in the flow of water from the pump. It wasn't as dark a dye as I usually made, I usually soaked it overnight, but it looked very pretty to me. I laid the dyed muslin scraps on a bush to dry. After awhile, Katie came around the corner. "What have you done to my material", she screeched, spit flying out of her mouth with every word. She sure did have a loud voice, it sounded to me like the cackling of a crow. Katie was very tall and I had to look up to see her. She looked a little like a crow, too, with her long black hair. "I done made you some pretty colors for your clothespin dolls, and if you got some more muslin, I can show you how to paint little flowers on it, too. It's just some dye I made so the doll clothes would all be pretty, Katie". Katie was mad as fire, and went stomping (as only crows can do) off to the kitchen to tell Gramma and my mother. I didn't have a room to be sent to, so I was confined to the front porch, and Katie was given some more scraps of dingy muslin. I took my dyed muslin and my pans of dye with me and with the frayed end of a stick, I started painting designs on my colorful scraps.
Eventually Katie must have felt sorry for me because she threw me a couple of her wooden clothespins. I used grass for hair, and strips of long dried grasses to tie the hair and the fabric around my clothespin doll. With green hair and clothes made of colors, I thought my dolls were beautiful, even if nobody else did. I even used short sticks to give my dolls arms, and mixed red and green dye together to make a brown color so the clothespin dolls could have brown shoes on the bottoms of their legs. I sat back and admired my two dolls. I could tell that Katie thought it all was the work of a delinquent, demented child.
Gramma and my mother continued to can beans, corn, beets, jams and jellies. I loved the thick jellies, as long as they had no seeds. Gramma made her jams and jellies with all natural ingredients, she sweetened with juice made from pears, and often used a dab of maple syrup if she thought to make it sweeter. And she used every bit of every fruit. The cores and the peelings of pears and apples were cooked together and strained, occasionally she added some mint to the mixture to give a little zip to the flavor. I doubt that she ever bought a thing except the jars and lids. I was really only interested in the jellamy and all its different flavors. They laughed at my word: Jellamy. I thought it was a good word, though, for a product that was thicker than jelly, but not as lumpy as jam. It was my favorite.
Recently I was talking with a friend in California, and she was making jellies and fruit leather. She was telling me how she made it when suddenly a memory landed smack in my mind. She was doing exactly what Gramma did all those years ago. This is what my California friend, Laura, said:
"Last night I made a special juice for jelly. I cooked and mashed all the skins and cores from the pears I 've got drying, and added about the same amount of dropped apples, several cinnamon sticks and a bunch of whole cloves. Put it through cheesecloth right after I extracted a quart of juice from berries picked yesterday, so it went through the berry mash, too. Squished it as long as I could, returned it to the stove with a couple cups of water, and cooked some more. I ended up with about 2 quarts of super yummy, cinnamon and clove scented thick juice for jelly. I did up pear and pear cherry jelly last night, too. The pears make it so sweet, that I barely used any sugar, just enough to mix with the pectin.
Really reduces the waste, to use all the skins and cores, plus pectin is concentrated around the skins and seeds of apples - pears, too?
Processed 28 jars of jelly, blackberry, plum and cherry. I am out of business until more pectin arrives, but I can still pick and make juice and leather. Or I can make some pectin and make jelly with lots and lots of sugar. In 13 cups of blackberry juice, I only used 1 cup of sugar."
I could hear Gramma in Laura's words, I wonder if they knew each other in another time, another place. The surprising thing is that Laura calls it Jellamy, too, that thick jelly that is not nearly as chunky as jam. I have many friends on Dave's Garden who can foods, just as I did when my children were small and I had a family to feed. I gave many gifts of canned goods at Christmas time. I don't can produce anymore, since I only have myself and my cats to feed, but now that I see pictures of the cans my friends have made, and now that Laura has brought back all my Gramma memories, I think I might just go out and see if I can find any fresh berries...or maybe apples and pears. Surely I can call on Laura if I need some help. And maybe someday, we can share our Jellamy!
A very special thanks to Laura (4Paws) for reminding me of my Gramma memories, and for reviving my longing for Jellamy, as well as allowing me to share her words with you.
The first photo is of the farm house in Bardstown, Kentucky where I spent summers while the grownups canned and I tried to stay out of trouble, the second is a collage of scenes around the farm, including the old spring house where the watermelons were kept cold in the chill of natural spring water, all from my own collection.
Thank you to 4Paws for the picture of her recent canned goods, to the family of the late Carol Eads (ceeadsalaskazone3) for the photo of her rose hips and other jellies, and to George (daylilydaddy) from Morehead, for the photo of all his efforts this season.
You are all an inspiration to me.