Jerry Nelson: The purple season
You know that it’s time to harvest your grapes when you start to see purple bird doots on the windshield of your pickup. In any case, that’s the system I use.
There are about half a dozen grapevines scattered around our farmstead. Most of them are the Valiant variety. This particular grape can withstand the subzero rigors of our Midwestern winters and continue to thrive even though I don’t give them any attention other than a roughshod haircut each spring. They are the vegetative equivalent of Norwegian bachelor farmers.
I have occasionally used our grapes to make wine. But winemaking is a long, drawn-out process that involves keeping things sterile and multiple passes through multiple filters, followed by waiting several months — or maybe even years! — for the final product to age properly.
We don’t have the time nor the patience for any of that anymore, so my wife and I instead turn our grapes into grape jelly. It’s our sugar-infused version of instant gratification.
After receiving the purple poo signal, I inspected our grapevines. Pulling open the jungle of leaves, I discovered a bonanza of tiny blue spheres. After I had picked several pounds and put them into my bucket, I found another trove. And then another.
Not bad for a plant that I had ignored for 364 days of the year.
I hauled the bounty into the house and my wife and I began the process of processing the grapes into jelly. As we destemmed the wee blue orbs, my wife exclaimed, “Ick! I found a spider!”
“Pay it no mind,” I replied. “Think of it as extra protein.”
A few minutes later she said, “Now I found a weird little beetle.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “They are an important source of added flavors.”
We stewed the grapes in our biggest kettle. Since such a large quantity of grapes was involved, I was put in charge of stirring the pot.
This was a mistake, as I am not known to be the tidiest person in the world. Purple spatters soon appeared everywhere: on the stove, on my shirt, even on the refrigerator, which sits several feet away. It looked as though a chainsaw horror film had been shot in our kitchen, except that they used grape juice instead of fake blood.
I was stocking footed and soon began to notice that it was becoming difficult to lift my feet off the floor. I suddenly developed deep empathy for all of the mice that we have captured in glue traps.
The idea of consuming grape jelly that came from our farmstead has a huge amount of appeal for me. It gives me the sense that we can operate independently of our industrial food system, that by golly, we could still live off the land if we had to.
These feelings were largely negated by the sugar factor. Making eight pints of grape jelly requires approximately one metric ton of sugar. Were it not for the addition of the fruit pectin to the grape juice/ sugar mixture, we would have produced grape-flavored pancake syrup.
Making one’s own grape jelly is labor intensive. Were we to pay ourselves a reasonable wage and add in the costs of purchased materials, I’m betting that our grape jelly would cost a bunch more than the mass-produced jellies that are available at the supermarket.
This is certainly not the first time I have done something that has made no sense from an economic standpoint. After all, I was a practicing dairy farmer for many years.
But there are intangible upsides to making your own jelly on your own kitchen stove. There’s the feeling that you are taking charge of your food supply. There’s the deep satisfaction when the lids of the canning jars make their tinny little pops, announcing that the fruits of your labors have been successfully preserved.
Best of all, though, is the purple aroma of stewing grapes. Hardly anything can compare to the fragrance of a steamy autumn kitchen where good things from the garden are being cooked and canned. My idea of heaven is walking into a kitchen where a kettleful of spiced apples is gurgling contentedly on the stovetop.
I’m now actually looking forward to next winter. On some subzero midwinter morning, we will crack open a jar of our homemade grape jelly and get a whiff of the sultry summer sunshine that was captured by the grapes and the purple perfume that had filled our kitchen.
And I will try to ignore my wife when she says, “Don’t look now, but I think there’s a spider leg on your toast.”