Food Memories Nourishes the Soul

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My brother may have a silly smile on his face, but he’s pretty happy about the food on his plate and the fun we had making it together.

“Do you remember how Mom made chili dog slaw?” my brother Bill asked. “You know, the one that tasted like slaw from Hanson?”

He’s asked the question to my sister Rita and me over the years. And more than once, we’ve mumbled non-descriptive answers. But this time, he wasn’t going to let us get away with a kinda, sorta, made up answer. His wife Diann had tried repeatedly to make the slaw, and because she never ate it or ever saw it, she was at her wits’ end trying to recreate it.

When we started rattling off our usual non-descriptive answer, I tried to deflect the fact we didn’t know by announcing that Vince had nailed our grandmother’s hot potato salad.

“You mean the hot one, with the green onions and eggs?” he asked with piqued interested.

“Yes, that one! Man, I didn’t think I’d ever eat that again,” I said.

“What about Nanaw’s Coconut Cake?” Rita added. “Mamaw Vivian always made one at Christmas. Does anybody have that recipe?”

“I do!”

“But what about the slaw? Does anybody know how Mama made the slaw?”

We shook our heads no, we didn’t. And that’s when I came up with the idea of getting together and making some of our favorite recipes that our mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmother enjoyed.

We pulled out our calendars and planned to get together on Saturday, January 16th. We’d meet at my brother and sister-in-law’s house and cook together. Each of us was tasked with preparing one of the recipes discussed.

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Vince, Rita, and Nick prepare our Grandmother Anna Mae Gentry’s Hot Potato Salad

When Vince and I arrived, the kitchen was already in full swing. My nephew Nick was helping his mom chop vegetables for the slaw. Rita had the cake ready, so she jumped in with Vince and me to quickly peel potatoes. Diann and I had both made chili for the hot dogs. And I had brought a bunch of turnip greens to go along with the hot potato salad.

It was a mixed-up menu, but each dish represented a thousand memories.

As we waited for the potatoes to boil, we explained to those who never experienced Mrs. Ligion’s coleslaw just how wonderful it tasted.

Mrs. Ligion operated a small drive up hut in Hanson. There’s is no telling how many hot dogs and ice cream cones were served out her pass-thru window. Her famous slaw dressed hot dogs and her famous footlong chili dogs. When Mrs. Ligion sold the establishment to her daughter, the hut became Kim’s Drive In sometime in the 1970’s. Later, it sold again. Sometime in the 1980’s, it closed. The little hut in Hanson, along Highway 41, had been a community institution. It was where everybody went after church. On hot summer evenings, station wagons and pickup trucks were parked all around it after softball games. Every little town in America had their version of Ligion’s. But only Hanson’s little hut had that sweet-and-sour slaw that mother had duplicated time and time again and my brother desperately wanted to taste once more.

With the meal ready and quickly blessed, each of us piled our plates. It was delicious. Every bite held a memory. Vince had once again recreated my grandmother Gentry’s hot potato salad. Diann did an outstanding job with the slaw. Frankly, I think it’s better than the original.

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My sister Rita tackled our Great-Grandmother Lelia Hailey’s Coconut Cake.

After lunch, I shared our family tree via ancestry.com. I’ve spent years collecting our family history, and in the past few months, I’ve been able to complete all the information back four generations (and beyond for some). It seemed a good time to share the new information after our lunch.

Afterwards, Rita sliced into her coconut cake which was delicious. Like so many family recipes, this coconut cake is different than most. It’s basically a white cake with thick coconut icing.

I loved sharing the stories and the food with my nephew Nick, who enjoys cooking. It was befitting to pass this experience to the next generation and hopefully, he’ll pass it on to the next.

 

Some Things Never Change

On Friday night, I received a text from my sister. It read, “I just needed to write tonight. So here it goes!”

Not knowing what to expect, I eagerly read what she sent.

A summer ritual in my family was the vegetable garden. My grandmother would start early in the spring, because she wanted tomatoes by the 4th of July. She also wanted to plant a second garden on the 4th. There was always a loud discussion prior to our holiday meal about planting a second garden, just when the first one was coming in. My grandmother always got her way, and she stayed busy preserving fresh garden items until late in the fall.

A couple of years ago, I took a couple of my girlfriends blackberry picking. I told them that wearing wide-brimmed hats were apart of my families tradition.

A couple of years ago, I took a couple of my girlfriends blackberry picking. I told them that wearing wide-brimmed hats were apart of my families tradition.

On the 4th, we usually went on our first trip blackberry picking. Never been? Well, first you have to “prepare” to pick the berries. Wild blackberries have thorns that would tear your clothes, your skin, often going deep enough to bleed. This means in 100 degree temperatures, on top of whatever shirt you’re wearing, you put on a long-sleeved shirt and then put rubber bands around each wrist. Then, while wearing your oldest pair of blue jeans, you stuff your feet down into heavy barn boots, tucking in your pant legs. Lastly, add gloves, sun hat, bucket, and a generous layer of mosquito repellent. Wearing such a fetching outfit helps to deter snakes, chiggers, or whatever to wants gnaw on you.

After we filled our buckets with berries, we would come out of the field or ditch hot, sweaty, and scratched up from the thorns. Nothing was sweeter than the fresh-squeezed lemonade that Momma had waiting for us. After we’d wash the berries, she’d send us off to take showers and throw our clothes in the washer before heading to our grandmother’s house to celebrate the 4th. The next day, Momma would make jars of blackberry jam and jelly to be eaten on cold winter mornings or nights when she’d make breakfast for supper.

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Rita’s husband Rocky reaches into the blackberry patch to pull out berry laden vines.

Today, my husband and I went back to the same farm where as a child, I picked blackberries. Rather than long-sleeves and pants, my husband wore short-sleeves and shorts. Instead of a sun hat and gloves, he was armed with a lawn-mower and a hoe. He mowed up the berries and brought the vines up to him using his hoe. (Effective tools against the snakes, but not the chiggers!). He picked three quarts of berries which have now been washed, stored in bags, and are now tucked away in the freezer. They’ll become a cobbler, jam, or jelly later this summer.

When I finished reading her text, I chuckled. Not at the sweet story she told, but because what she didn’t know was that just like her, I went searching for blackberries the same day. My favorite patch is almost ready for picking. Next weekend, I’ll get up extra early and dress up in long-sleeves, an old pair of blue jeans, gloves, and a sun hat to do what my sister and generations have done before me – I’ll go blackberry picking. Some things never change.

Enjoy this Despite Everything post from 2013 about blackberry picking.

When the Blackberries Ripen

Strawberry Preserves Worthy of a Blue Ribbon

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Last year’s Strawberry with Black Peppercorn Preserves didn’t impress the county fair canning judges. Maybe this year, I can finally bring home the blue ribbon for the category.

I vowed that I wasn’t going to make strawberry preserves this year.

Thanks to one failed attempt after another, I had decided to throw in the towel and skip entering strawberry preserves into this year’s Calloway County Fair. To be honest, none of my strawberry preserves have ever been “fair-worthy.” I’ve gone ahead and entered them anyway, but red and white ribbons were all that I earned. As a former 4H’er, I’ve struggled with the achievement of second and third place in that category.

After each year’s judging, I’ve leaned over the roped barricade to closely observe the strawberry preserves category winners to determine what made their strawberry preserves better than mine.

  • Unlike me, they’ve used commercial pectin.
  • Unlike me, they didn’t macerate the berries to achieve a jewel colored jelly that suspended the fruit.
  • Unlike me, they’ve barely observed (much less followed) the rules for jar labeling or headspace.
  • Unlike me, they achieved a perfect set.
  • Unlike me, they won the elusive blue ribbon for strawberry preserves.

Last year, I convinced myself that I had a champion jar. I had nearly missed strawberry season. All the activities surrounding our son’s high school graduation paired with planting our the garden kept me busy. Thanks to the keen eye of the Murray Main Street Director during a Saturday Market, I scored a flat (16 quarts) of strawberries two weeks before the fair. That weekend, our kitchen went into full preserve manufacturing mode.

Strawberries

Always make preserves and jams from  strawberries that picked a day or two before in order to maximize their juice release.

But I had failed to achieve the perfect preserves set- – where the whole fruit hangs beautifully suspended in jelly. Time after time, I only achieved a soft set — meaning that that jellied suspension is more liquid than it is a solid.

Let’s face it: nobody likes pouring their preserves onto a biscuit. Especially fair judges.

One of the issues with achieving perfect strawberry preserves is that strawberries are a low-pectin fruit. You almost have to use commercially-produced pectin to get jelly suspension. But I refuse to use commercial pectin. As with other processed food, I don’t trust the preservatives that are added to the pectin. So, I battle the odds stacked against me trying to balance boiling the sugar to the right consistency with avoiding scorching the preserves.

My frustration levels were at their peak when I read at the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation‘s website (the king of canning research from which all Cooperative Extension competition rules were established) that I wasn’t failing, but instead I was actually achieving a most desired “traditional preserves set.”

Excited to discover that I wasn’t hopeless, I called my sister, former Cooperative Extension Agent extraordinaire. She’s my hot-line for all things canning. I never allow her in my kitchen when I’m preparing for competition. Nor do I allow her to see my selected jars until after I bring them home from the fair.  But I sure talk for hours with her about what I’m doing.

I asked her about the “traditional preserves set” concept. Bless her heart. Like the loving sister she is, she lied like a dog. She told me that the experienced judge would recognize what a glorious thing I had achieved. Just to make sure the judges understood what I was offering wasn’t a failed preserves attempt, I even noted on the label that I had utilized a “traditional preserves set.” I tried to add “as described by the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation,” but it wouldn’t fit on the label. I’m sure they were as impressed as I was at my precious jar of preserves as they taped a white ribbon to its lid.

This Monday, when I got an email stating that The Berry Farm would be delivering freshly picked berries to the office, I grabbed my wallet. I resisted the urge to buy a whole flat.

“Be smart about this,” I told myself. “Get a couple of quarts, just enough to make a test batch. If I fail again, then I haven’t wasted my time and money.”

Now, you must understand. Its only strawberry preserves that I’ve struggled to set. Any other preserves, especially my blackberry preserves are ‘da bomb. (If I might brag for a moment!) My strawberry preserves taste divine, but taste isn’t considered in fair competition.

I let the berries sit overnight in one of the refrigerators at work. On Tuesday, I brought them home. I measured out 3 lbs of fruit, selecting the best specimens. I avoided the biggest berries, choosing the smaller ones because true preserves feature the whole berry instead of pieces of fruit. I washed, dried, and hulled them. Then, I added two and a half cups of organic sugar. I gently folded the fruit and sugar together, letting the juices release for a couple of hours before covering the container with parchment and putting it in the fridge to macerate overnight.

On Wednesday after supper, I poured the berries and sugar into my favorite dutch oven. I turned the heat on low, then went and washed dishes. I kept an eye on the it but left it alone, letting it slowly heat up and melt the sugar. By the time I rinsed the last dish, I could hear the mixture revving up to a soft boil. I turned off the stove and let it cool. Then I put it all back into the parchment covered container to sit once again overnight in the fridge.

Tomorrow night, I’ll make the preserves. Or at least I’ll try to make preserves. I’m sure several prayers will be said as I attempt to achieve at least one “fair-worthy” jar of strawberry preserves capable of bringing home a blue ribbon.

Types of Jellied Products

From the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation:

Jelly, jam, preserves, conserves and marmalades are fruit products that are jellied or thickened. Most are preserved by sugar. Their individual characteristics depend on the kind of fruit used and the way it is prepared, the proportions of different ingredients in the mixture, and the method of cooking.

Jellies are usually made by cooking fruit juice with sugar. (Some are made without cooking using special uncooked jelly recipes.) A good product is clear and firm enough to hold its shape when turned out of the container, but quivers when the container is moved. When cut, it should be tender yet retain the angle of the cut. Jelly should have a flavorful, fresh, fruity taste.

Jams are thick, sweet spreads made by cooking crushed or chopped fruits with sugar. Jams tend to hold their shape but are generally less firm than jelly. (Recipes are also available for uncooked jams.)

Preserves are small, whole fruit or uniform size pieces in a clear, slightly gelled syrup. The fruit should be tender and plump.

Conserves are jam-like products that may be made with a combination of fruits. They also contain nuts, raisins or coconut.

Marmalades are soft fruit jellies containing small pieces of fruit or peel evenly suspended in the transparent jelly. They often contain citrus fruit.

Other fruit products that are preserved by sugar but not jellied include butters, honeys and syrups. Fruit butters are sweet spreads made by cooking fruit pulp with sugar to a thick consistency. Spices are often added. Honeys and syrups are made by cooking fruit juice or pulp with sugar to the consistency of honey or syrup.