Beach Plum Jelly
by Kate Tvelia Athearn
On steamy late summer evenings after a day of sweaty chores and driving my kids to and from their various activities, you can find this farm girl relaxing in whatever part of the yard has the best breeze, with a cold drink and a trashy novel, worn out from the frantic pace and sauna level humidity of an Island summer.
But not my husband. He never got the point of sitting still. At the end of his workday, he heads straight for the garden. After the weeding and harvesting has been done, he can be found steaming up our already sweltering kitchen, all 6 burners of our Vulcan range cranking out professional level BTUs as he preserves the season’s bounty in mason jars.
Brian is fervent in his devotion to canning. If anything makes him happier than a freezer full of meat he has raised and processed, then it is a pantry full of jars he has put up himself. He fills our pantry with everything from pickled eggs to tomato sauce. But my very favorite of his various canning projects doesn’t start with one of our crops. It is the delicious nectar of our favorite coastal deciduous shrub: beach plum jelly.
Though I’m not a huge fan of the cooking part of the jelly making process, our whole family is required to contribute to the collection of said plums. Together with our two sons, we brave mosquitos and bee stings, poison ivy and no trespassing signs, trekking to the most remote corners of our beautiful Island. We pluck the ripe fruits and fill our buckets to overflowing, then haul them home where the magic happens.
Cooking and canning the jelly involves a time consuming series of perfectly timed steps: boil fruit and strain it to make juice, add sugar and boil again, leaving enough room in the pot for it to expand as it heats up, add pectin and boil some more, skim off the foam, pour into the jars that were sterilized somewhere in the middle of doing all the previous steps. Then the jars are covered with canning lids and boiled once more.
The jelly doesn’t actually set until after all this is done and it cools in its jars. So if a mistake was made along the way, it won’t be discovered until hours later. It can be kept as is, and used as a sauce, or, in the case of my perfectionist husband, it will need to be remixed and recooked to reach an optimal jell.
It’s time consuming and annoying to say the least. But he loves every minute of it. He loves to provide for us, whether he grew the food himself, or is harvesting food that just grows wild. He loves the old timey feeling of preparing for winter (I swear he was a worker ant in a previous life), and following the same recipe, and even some of the same equipment, his parents and grandparents did before him. While his obsession with preparation and drive to impress others with his self-sustaining prowess is strong, I know there is an even more important reason he does it all: his desire to keep a little bit of the summer alive, to save it for later, when we most need to relive its bright colors and vivid flavor.
I try to hold on to these precious memories by writing them down. He preserves them in glass. And while a perfect summer day can’t actually be contained in a six-ounce jar, when we reach for one on a blizzardy Sunday morning, we can almost feel the sticky salt air on our skin, hot sand between our toes. The sealed lid pops open like a firecracker, conjuring beach sunsets and bonfires. But it isn’t until we gather at the table, smearing jelly on freshly baked bread and Dad’s famous fluffy pancakes, licking it off the spoon, that the stories start flowing. Remember that time we got caught, purple-handed, picking on private property, and Dad charmed the homeowners into allowing us to stay? Or when a butterfly landed on mom as she stopped to take a video of bees collecting beach plum pollen? The ghosts of summers past–fights, laughter, sunburns, and the ocean breeze–join at the table, reminiscing, reliving and reveling our sticky sweet, locally grown, and perfectly preserved good fortune.