Today I invite you to “go purple” with me and come along on a trip back in time to the old grape arbor, to the creek bank to gather fox grapes, and to that work of making grape juice and jelly for winter use. Purple has always been the color for royalty, and as we looked at our cans of purple grape juice and the small glasses of jelly, we could anticipate a feast fit for royalty supplemented and abetted by these two tasty preserved items.
My Grandpa “Bud” Collins had a grape arbor. He grew Concord grapes. The vines were staked “to a fare-you-well,” which in mountain vernacular meant the lush vines were well-trained along a sturdy grape arbor. It was a happy day for me—like play, not work—when I was allowed to accompany my Aunts Ethel and Avery to the grape arbor to gather the harvest. I can remember still looking up to see the luscious clusters of ripe grapes hanging like purple gold from the vines with broad leaves that ran along the whole length and breadth of the scaffold.
As a small child, I was allowed my own small bucket and a step stool on which I stood to gather grapes. I was warned in advance, “Be careful; don’t wiggle or you’ll fall off the stool!” My aunts gave me instructions on how to reach to the end of the cluster and gently pull off the whole bunch of grapes. I would soon have my small bucket filled and feel quite an accomplishment at my help with this valuable harvest.
Then came another work-play task I enjoyed. I was shown how to wash the grapes in pans of clear water. We didn’t have running water at that time, so we drew cool buckets from the deep well, using the “well bucket,” rope and windlass. We always washed the grapes twice to insure they were clean, and always “looked” them to remove any insects that might be hiding somewhere on the grapes.
The next step was pulling the grapes from the cluster, making sure no stems remained on them. In the pot, the grapes were covered with water and put on the Home Comfort wood stove to simmer. It was customary to use a wire potato masher to crush the grapes as they boiled so that the juice could be readily released from the hulls. After a proper length of time of cooking, the grapes were set aside to cool some, and then they were strained through clean cheesecloth to save just the royal purple juice. This was placed in one-half gallon Mason fruit jars, sealed with a “rubber ring and can top,” the kind of sealer we had for the jars in those days, and the whole cans were submerged into a hot water bath until processed—just a few minutes, maybe ten, for juice. If the juice was too tart, some sugar was added to the juice in each jar and stirred to dissolve, before processing.
When the sealed jars cooled, they were taken to the cellar and stored on the shelves there awaiting winter use. What a treat it was to get a half-gallon of grape juice and taste its tangy goodness in the dead of winter. How pretty the jars looked, sitting in their assigned place in the well-ordered cellar. This royal-purple drink took its honored place beside the other many jars of preserved food from summer’s bounty.
Some of the grapes were turned into jelly or jam. When the juice was made, it was matched, cup-for-cup with white sugar and boiled until it “jelled.” Sure-Jell, which has been a marvelous find for jelly-making in the latter half of the twentieth century, was never heard of when I was young and helping with the jelly-making. We simply boiled the sugar-juice combination until a drop of it into water in a cup would indicate to the practiced eye that the jelly was ready to put into sterilized small jars and sealed over with melted wax to await those future treats with jelly and butter on a hot biscuit. Yum, yum. Can’t you just imagine how that tasted on a snowy morning in December or January?
Fox Grape harvest came in the fall. It was harder to gather these grapes, for they were wild and grew on vines that had climbed trees in our forest, especially along branch or creek banks. My younger brother Bluford became an expert fox grape gatherer, for he could “skinny up” a tree, with a bucket strapped about his waist by a belt, ready to pluck those grapes from their tall hiding places. We would take two or three buckets on our treks to find and gather fox grapes. Once home again with our treasure from the forest, the same processes as with Grandpa’s Concord grapes was followed to make juice and jelly from these wild grapes. They had a tartness that distinguished them from the tame Concord grapes, and the color was not quite as royal purple as those from the arbor.
I was age fourteen when my mother passed away. I found myself of necessity having to be “chief cook and bottle washer”—as well as canner and preserver—around the Dyer household. Looking back now, I often wonder how I was able to do adult work and still go to school. It wasn’t easy, but I had been taught well: “Whatever thy hands find to do, do it with thy might” and “Work is honorable; do it to the best of your ability and without complaining.”
Every time I purchase grape juice in today’s modern super market or get a jar of Smucker’s grape jelly or jam from the grocer’s shelf, I think back to those days of yore when I thought nothing of gathering grapes, processing them, and enjoying the products of my labors, that mountain way of “putting up” against the hunger and cold of winter months.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 2, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.