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Food for Thought

Jelly simplified

It was the summer of 1944. I would be starting fourth grade in September. We had moved to our acreage on the edge of Knoxville the preceding March. There were walnut trees, pear trees, raspberry bushes, and an old apple tree– and oddly enough, no cherry trees on what had once been a cherry orchard. My mother was making raspberry jelly from berries we’d picked, and apple butter from some of the summer apples. These early apples, commonly called glass apples, made the best and smoothest apple butter when used before they were fully ripe. She also used some of the apples in the berry jelly for the pectin they contained, which helped the jelly to set.
Our homemade jelly was always put into an assortment of odd glasses that had once held such things as commercially made jelly and jam, peanut butter, olives, and cheese spread. Many of the jars had screw-on lids, but most had metal lids that had to be pried off with a bottle opener and, in the process, were bent enough that the lids wouldn’t re-close tightly enough for reuse.
At age ten, I was already “the daughter who liked to cook” and Mother usually recruited me as her assistant because I never objected or avoided such duties. Aside from helping peel apples and wash berries, I washed my share of jelly jars, turning them upside down in the pan of boiling water so that they would be sterilized when it came time to fill them with jelly. Once the jelly was ready, Mother melted slabs of paraffin in a saucepan on the stove. The paraffin would be carefully spooned over the top of the jelly in the jars, to seal it in lieu of a lid, and came in boxes the size of a pound of butter. It was divided into four slabs rather than sticks, with each slab wrapped in parchment. I never was allowed to melt the paraffin, possibly because Mother knew how easy it was to overheat it and start a fire.
In a drawer near the stove, was a wax paper bread wrapper containing round chunks of paraffin that had formerly sealed the tops of other jars of jelly. These were also added to the pan. One might expect that, after a few years of jelly-making, my mother would have saved and reused the paraffin and, over time, she should have collected enough that she didn’t need to start with a new box every year. The problem with that theory was that, when removed from the top of the jelly, the paraffin always retained smidgens of jelly and, when chewed like chewing gum, had a pleasant flavor, at least for a short time. Once-chewed paraffin was not suitable for recycling, so she carefully hoarded as much of it as she could keep from us girls.
One year, a neighbor told Mother about a simpler method of melting the paraffin. It eliminated the danger of a flaming pan of melted paraffin on the stove. One had only to grate the paraffin, place it in the bottoms of the jelly glasses, and pour the boiling hot jelly on top of it. The heat from the jelly would melt the paraffin which would then rise to the top and seal the jelly. I don’t know if we failed to grate the paraffin finely enough, or if the jelly wasn’t hot enough, but the experiment was a total failure. We had to use additional paraffin to seal the jelly, and the jelly itself contained little globules of wax which we ended up swallowing, though we’d hoped that, after the jelly cooled, could be somehow separated and used as ersatz chewing gum.
At about this time, my sister joined the Girl Scouts and learned to use old paraffin and stubs of old wax crayons to make colorful candles. Mother’s stash of recycled paraffin was raided frequently that winter, as we all enjoyed this new hobby.
Within a few years, Mother had switched to two-piece lids and pint mason jars for her jellies and jams, having discovered that the boiling hot jelly would sterilize both the jars and lids if she turned them upside down after screwing on the lids. We listened for the muffled ping of the upside-down jars, counting them until all had sealed. I have used that method since then and never had a jar of jelly go bad.
I don’t make much jelly these days, but when I had a lot of mixed fruit salad left after a party, I knew I wouldn’t eat it all before it had to be thrown out. Could I turn it into jelly? It was a mixture of apples, grapes, oranges, maraschino cherries, and pineapple, with a dressing made from marshmallows and pineapple juice. I added some sugar, and the juice from the maraschino cherries, mushed it all up in the blender and cooked it down to the consistency of apple butter. I didn’t seal it in mason jars, nor did I pour it into jelly glasses and seal with paraffin. I put it in a tub with a plastic lid and keep it in the refrigerator. Easiest method yet.