By Judith Kalter
The best way to learn to cook is in your grandmother’s kitchen. My grandmother, Mary Ellen Senter Harrison Hoegraver Noe, always encouraged her six grandchildren to help out by punching down the yeasty fragrant bread dough before she fried it up in a big cast iron skillet or let us sit atop the kitchen table and watch her at work.
As children we always knew where the food on our table came from; the garden out back, the chicken coop for eggs and Sunday dinner and sometimes the rabbit hutch for special occasions. One Easter she made the mistake of serving rabbit. When we protested, she adamantly claimed that this chicken just had a lot of breast meat and tiny little drumstick legs. We ate up!
Unfortunately for most children and many adults today, where the food on their plate comes from is a complete mystery. Yet here in Leelanau County, residents have the luxury to choose their food right from the farmers who grow or raise it; at roadside stands or organic food markets. Many locals grow their own gardens complete with herbs to further enhance the flavor of fresh tomatoes and zucchini. I also enjoy gathering food from the wild to add to my pantry selections and satisfy some primitive yearning.
When I relocated to Leelanau County, I tried to recreate some of the wonders of the time spent “Up North.” My grandmother was raised in St. Ignace in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She would often return in the late summer to help my great-grandmother can goods to insure that the bounty of summer would provide during the lean days of winter that were sure to follow.
Fall seemed the perfect time to relive a long-treasured memory; making jelly from the abundant wild grapes that grew in my great-grandmother’s yard in St. Ignace. The intense aroma of the burgundy juice boiling away on her massive wood stove stays with me still.
The land and the food it provided was such a part of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. One way for me to keep my connection to them alive is through the land surrounding my home. Between the deer and the shade of my home in the woods there is little space for a garden, but there are acres of parkland available in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the local branch of the National Park Service, to forage for wild edible foods. The hunting for and gathering of these seasonal delights is a connection to my past that is a pleasure to nurture.
Recently Mr. Darcy, my Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier, and I walked the Empire Bluff Trail in search of Wild Fox Grapes. We were rewarded by finding garlands of the purplish black, bloom frosted clusters right next to the pathway. On a recent vineyard tour, I had noticed that the grape clusters were all strategically placed between wires in a row, convenient for harvesting, about three feet off the ground. Not only were these grapes within reach, but the area was clear of Poison Ivy. Although most of the clusters were well beyond our reach on tentacles climbing high into the treetops, I was able to pick my limit of one gallon of the fruit with little help but much diversion from my feisty four-footed friend and the passersby he inevitably attracts.
Many of the hikers questioned what I planned to do with the sour-tasting fruit. The grapes are less tart as they ripen on the vine, but it is best to pick them before or right after the first frost or the juice becomes difficult to gel. Whenever I gather food from the wild I am mindful to leave most for the animals and birds, who are totally dependent on nature’s food source for survival while I enjoy the found foods as accents to what I can buy at markets and roadside stands.
Wild Fox Grapes; even their name is not ordinary and sounds adventurous. Leelanau vintner, Larry Mawby of Suttons Bay told me that the name comes from their intense fruity flavor and aroma, which was called “foxy” hundreds of years ago. He stated that these Wild Fox Grapes were “vines either planted by early settler or descended from them. They are partially Vitis labrusca. This species has given us the staple of grape jelly, the Concord Grape.”
The gathering of the grapes on a sunny Fall day surrounded by their red and yellow leaves is a delight that far exceeds the tedious chore of painstakingly removing the grapes from their stems. I follow the tradition of removing the grapes one at a time from the stem and having the purple hands to prove it. After cleaning the grapes, they are simmered in water until the skins pop, releasing a marvelous aroma that fills the house. For me the most difficult part of the jelly-making process is pouring the hot grape liquid into an old muslin pillowcase reserved only for this use. Once the juice is securely tied into the pillowcase, I hang it from a broomstick, balanced over my turkey-roasting pan in the bottom of the utility room sink.
The next morning the fun resumes. Using my grandmother’s method, I measure out only grape juice, sugar and a little lemon juice — no processed fruit pectin. I bring this mixture to a boil in a heavy kettle, reduce the flame and simmer it until it reaches the jelly stage. This is the point when the hot liquid on a metal spoon will drip onto a sheet in two or three thick drops as opposed to one thin stream. A candy thermometer helps determine this since it is critical for the jelly to “gel” to the desired consistency when cool. The jelly stage is reached at 220 degrees Fahrenheit or 8 degrees above the boiling point.
I carefully pour the scathing hot jelly into jars that have already been sterilized and placed upside down on a clean linen towel. By this time the wonderful aroma from the fruit has permeated the entire house and anyone nearby has assembled in the kitchen to “help” clean out the still hot kettle. Pouring a thin layer of hot melted paraffin on top is the final step.
For days I will enjoy seeing these jars on the kitchen counter before finally moving them to the pantry. In winter I will remember the days spent gathering the fruit and making the Wild Fox Grape Jelly. Foods not manufactured on a factory assembly line hold a special allure for people today so I will either generously share the jars as gifts or more judiciously as a dollop atop my Thumbprint Cookies. Either way it will offer me the opportunity to retell the stories of my Grandmother’s kitchen.
Wild Fox Grape Jelly
1 Cup grape juice (see below)
1 Tb. lemon juice
Combine these ingredients in a large kettle. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil then turn down heat to maintain a full simmer. Cook until it reaches jelly stage 220 degrees Fahrenheit or when two or three drops at the edge of a spoon slides off in a sheet. Pour the grape jelly into previously sterilized glass jelly jars and seal immediately with melted paraffin.
This amount makes about two glasses.
Grape Juice From Fresh Grapes
Wash off the grapes and drain in a large colander. Pick off the grapes from the stems. Be sure to include several still under ripe ones. These will help the jelly to jell. If you are lucky enough to get a quart of grapes ad the same amount of water and place with two small green apples that have been quartered but not peeled in a large heavy kettle. Hopefully while gathering the grapes you also came cross an apple tree. These apple will help the juice to jell.
Bring the mixture to a full boil then simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the skins pp. Give the mixture a hearty stir and pour into a jelly bag (I use an old cotton pillow case). Hang the bag overnight so the juice can slowly drip into a large bowl. The Musk, pulp left in the bag can be used to make Grape butter and can also be the beginning of Balsamic Vinegar.
Daily quantity permitted per person from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Apples one bushel
Asparagus one gallon
Blackberries one gallon
Black walnuts one gallon
Chokeberries one gallon
Elderberries one gallon
Serviceberries one gallon
Mushrooms (edible any species)one gallon
Pears one bushel
Plumbs one gallon
Raspberries one gallon
Rhubarb one gallon
Rose hips one gallon
Sand cherries one gallon
Peaches one gallon
Strawberries one gallon
Grapes one gallon
Oven 350 degrees
Cream together: C real butter
C brown sugar
Add: 1 egg yolk (keep the egg white to use later)
Stir in: 1C flour
Wild Fox Grape Jelly
Chill the dough for 30 minutes then roll into one-inch balls. Dip the balls into the slightly beaten egg white and roll in the finely chopped nuts. Using your thumb, make an indentation into the center of each cookie and then fill with one teaspoon of Wild Fox Grape Jelly. Bake 8 min. or until golden brown.