Last year, our apple tree went crazy.
It went through a reproductive frenzy that would have impressed the Catholics. It burgeoned with apples.
I made a few pies and saw that pie production would not be able to keep up with apple production. I went through "The Joy of Cooking" (old version) and decided to use up the apples by making jelly.
It was a hot, messy, sticky business. I came up with a lot of underboiled batches and burned fingers. But I had a lot of apples to practice on, and in the end I came up with several jars of golden, sparkling apple jelly.
Let me just say here that making jelly and jam is a beautiful business. Apple jelly is like spun gold. Rhubarb strawberry jam looks like pieces of rubies in wine. Last night I made raspberry jam, and the crushed berries and sugar looked almost like blood -- a bright, flat red smeared throughout the steel pot.
I entered some apple jelly in the State Fair last year. That's what you do with jelly, right? I didn't win anything but had such fun with it I'm entering more this year. Unfortunately, this year our apple tree seems to have some kind of rust or parasite. We will harvest no apples. But I did discover some raspberry bushes, so I will enter strawberry-rhubarb jam and raspberry jam this year.
The thing is, I have this authenticity hang-up. I would never have entered anything in the fair if we hadn't had such a harvest. I would never have gone to the store, bought some apples and then made jelly. The rhubarb was from our patch. The raspberries were newly discovered. I had to buy the strawberries, but they were local.
Also, I use no pectin. I have heard it's nearly impossible to get it right, and frankly, it seems like cheating. I felt bad that I put some cut-up apple in the raspberry jam last night. Does this put me at a disadvantage? Probably. My strawberry-rhubarb jam turned out more like preserves. Will I be downgraded because it doesn't hold its shape or sparkle the way a jam made with strawberry Jell-O does? Who wants to put Jell-O in a jam? Yuck.
You hear the stories about the jelly-maker who knew a chemist and used the centrifuge to separate the juice, ending up with one pint of glass-clear jelly and the blue ribbon. That's one way to make jelly. Another way is to make all the jelly you can with all the apples off your tree, and choose the two best half-pints to enter. I suppose both are equally valid to the letter. But it's the spirit of the fair I enjoy.
It sounds disingenuous to say I'm just in it for the work and the fun. Frankly, I would be thrilled to pieces if I won anything in the fair -- I'm competing against people who have been canning for years. But there is a little part of me that says, "I did it the old-fashioned way." And I do take pleasure from the work and mess that go into it as well, and seeing the jars, back-lit and glittering, in the cases at the Fair, whether they have ribbons or not.