“Hey Grandma! Whatcha doin’?” My ten-year-old self said one sunny summer afternoon back in the 1970s.
I had run into the kitchen to get a drink of water. My grandparents’ homestead had an artesian well which supplied us with the coldest, most refreshing water. I didn’t even like water as a youth, but that water seemed to strengthen the soul.
My grandmother had all kinds of weird looking things laid out all over the table. A metal contraption that looked like an aluminum cone hat. That hat stood in its own stand and had a wooden plunger that could double as a blunt torture device. My ten-year-old mind could not connect the dots as to what this device was. There were also the berries my Grandfather and I picked from the gooseberry plant earlier in the morning sitting aside in a strainer (that harvesting experience is a story for another time).The gooseberries had been freshly rinsed and were waiting for what came next.
My grandma said “I think you need to help me.” Thinking back my adult self has to wonder if I really was more help or more trouble during that experience. I know now, as a mother and grandmother myself, the best way for children to learn is by doing. Doing projects “together” creates lasting bonds and firm memories shared experiences like this one present. I don’t think it was my grandmothers original intention to have me help. However, this encounter placed the seed of intense curiosity in me in regards to canning and homesteading.
From that point forward I helped my grandma measure, strain, add, count, boil, stir and process those berries. I found out we were making gooseberry jelly. I knew from picking those berries earlier in the day they were very tart. I could NOT wrap my mind around why she would want to save and preserve those berries when they didn’t taste very good. I knew I certainly wasn’t going to eat any come winter. I asked her about this. Her answer? That’s what the sugar is used for. Sugar? Seriously? I knew my grandma was pretty smart so I decided to just enjoy what we were doing.
We boiled the gooseberries down to a kind of ‘slop looking’ substance. She put this substance through the cone looking contraption and it separated the pulp from the skins and other things not desired. She added the sugar, brought the mixture to a slow boil and had me stir the whole time. I stirred so much I thought my arm was going to fall off. I thought to myself, surely someone had to invent something that could make stirring easier. (They had, we just didn’t own one.) While I stirred she took the pulp and put it in cheesecloth and hung it up to drip to get the last of the pulp out of the skins.
I can still picture in my mind’s eye that cheesecloth hanging and dripping. How smart that was, I thought. Let the canning tools do the work for you.
After what seemed like an eternity of stirring, my grandmother removed the pan from the burner and poured the lava-like substance into jars. She then set them aside to cool. She said we were going to pour melted wax on top of the jars to seal them. WHAT?!? What crazy ridiculousness was this?
Fast forward to cooled jars, melted wax and sealing the jam with said wax. After we were done, I don’t remember much of the clean-up of the mess we made. I had contributed as much help as my ten-year-old body could muster. I ran out to the ever-calling outdoors to play with the wind and the woods.
That evening when the sun was going to its resting place and I was too, I walked though the kitchen and there like silent beacons stool those jars of gooseberry jelly. I stopped dead in my tracks. My grandmother had also made biscuits after I ran outside. She handed me a biscuit with fresh jelly and a tall glass of water. I appreciatively took both and when my taste buds hit that jelly, my eyes widened and then I understood in a flash. My sore arm and weird looking contraption making process was worth every second. I was in love with gooseberries.
Editor’s Note: Born and raised in a long lineage of homesteaders and do-it-yourselfers, Jennifer Miller has lived life as one learning adventure after another. Her desire is to communicate through her writing the journey of learning and wonder she has had the privilege of experiencing. Passionate about family (including her 7 children and grandchildren), friends, homesteading, healthy living, growing most things green and a few other things, Jennifer loves to articulate these subjects through her penmanship.