It all started at The Canary, a bar in North Muskegon. Unlikely location for this non-drinker, as I’ve been in the joint maybe 3 times in the 20 plus years we lived there. It was Hubs. He’d stop after work for a beer a couple times a week, along with the cronies he’d meet there. Shooting the shit about everything from work, hunting, guns, to cars and on certain rare (I hope) occasions, his better half-me.
|The Canary Bar, North Muskegon…|
His name was Ken. I guess you’d call him a fringe friend. Ken was at The Canary on a regular basis. I don’t really know how ‘bar talk’ works. A group of guys sitting in the general vicinity of each other, joining in conversations now and then. So that’s how Hubs met Ken. I really don’t remember meeting him the first time. Most likely John came home with stories about this guy or that couple, so by the time I actually met Ken, it felt like I already knew him.
|Something Hubs might bring to The Canary. Salsa & chips to share…|
John would occasionally bring canned goods to the bar to share. Sometimes our super hot pickled asparagus. He would open a quart and pass it around, accepting the ‘oohs and ahhs’ on my behalf. Other times I’d pack a box with a couple dozen jars of miscellaneous canned goods, pickles, beets and jams. The guys who happened to be there that day would divide the jars up and take home. Ken admired me (not in a weird way) I guess from the things John said (they never mentioned anything derogatory to my face) over the years. My job as Parish Visitor, visiting the elderly, homebound people from the church. I always brought folks some baked or canned goodies. That wasn’t part of my job, it was just part of me. I couldn’t visit anyone without bringing them something to eat.
|My usual basket of goodies when I went visiting…|
Several years ago, Ken called and asked if he could buy and bring over the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner. Would I see that a needy family get his and Karen’s gift? No problem. I’d relay the offer to our pastor. If no one in our congregation needed the meal, he’d pass the offer to an appropriate agency. I’d get the food box from Ken, bring it to church a few days before Thanksgiving. The pastor would do the rest. I never knew where it went, but think I received a thank you a couple of times, and passed that along to Ken, who seemed somewhat embarrassed. Every year until we moved Ken did this good deed.
|Much of the bar conversations involved old cars. This is in Le Mars, Iowa, the day John (with Les) bought our 1964 Corvette, 1992…|
The same year the food gift box tradition started, Ken had called me in October. “Hey Denise, would you like some of our grapes? It’s been a bumper crop. We have way too many.” Though I never worked with grapes before, I blurted out, “wow, sure Ken, thanks!” Oh my goodness, what had I done? When I walked out the front door the next morning for my walk, there on the deck were 2 bushels of grapes. Unless you’re a canner or winemaker, you have no idea how many fricking grapes that is. Got out my trusty canning books to learn the art of making grape jelly. Although I got Ken’s grapes every year for a good decade, they were never again placed at my feet, on the front porch, so to speak. Ken would call John, ask to speak to me, tell me the grapes were ready anytime in the next few days. “Better bring a couple of boxes and scissors along when you come to pick grapes.” Some years there were tons, other years the crop was lean for one reason or another. Since I keep a journal of my canning exploits, I believe that first year yielded 500 ounces, about 4 gallons. Yes, that’s 4 gallons of grape juice. Way to break me in Ken. During that winter and spring, I never left the house without a few jars of grape jelly to give away. Bumper crop indeed.
|The lowly little Concord grape…|
About the cheapest product (ok, not counting Ramen Noodles) in the grocery store is grape jelly. A staple for school lunches across America. Since the grapes were free, I could compete. I still needed boatloads of sugar, pectin, jars and lids. But I never realized how much work is involved with grapes. Ken’s grapes were a little different too. He actually grew 3 varieties. The Concord accounted for about 90%, but there was a reddish grape and a green grape in the mix. I am convinced that’s what made my grape jelly so stinking good. Just added a little zip with those 2 other grape varieties. But grapes are messy. You’ve got to wash, de-stem, and smash them, keeping the skins and seeds. Throw them in a huge pot with a bit of water and simmer for a few minutes. The house smells incredible at this point. But the work has just begun.
|Concords before I start working on them…|
After simmering, the grapes are now juice, but still have all the seeds, some pulp and skins in the pot. Carefully I ladle this hot mess in a colander covered with a damp, doubled cheesecloth. You have to be patient here because this step can’t be rushed. I don’t want to squeeze the grapes or force the juice through the cheesecloth too fast. This makes my jelly cloudy. There goes competing with the grocery store. After a couple hours of dripping juice, I toss the skins and pulp. But I’m still not ready for jelly. I must be out of my freaking mind. Sigh. I pour this beautiful purple juice in plastic jugs and plop them in the fridge overnight. The simple grape produces something after they’ve been cooked. Just my luck. Why not? It’s called a tartrate crystal. Actually pretty but another way to ruin the looks of my jelly (or wine I think). The crystals look like maroon sequins. They adhere to the sides and bottom of the plastic jugs. So I carefully pour (again) the cold juice through another damp cheesecloth, leaving the empty jugs holding the sequin crystals. I know, isn’t it easier to spend $1.99 on 2 pounds of Welch’s? Maybe, but I’m convinced my jelly has superior taste. And I love to can. Yeah, there’s that.
|Such a slow process for one of the easiest things I can…|
When Ken started giving me grapes, Landon was 6 or 7, Peyton was about 3 and in Montessori preschool. The kids thought it would be fun to come over and make grape jelly with grandma. Shannon brought some fancy shaped jelly jars for their teacher’s Christmas gifts. Landon and Peyton were not content to just help with jelly part. To them, the real fun was in the smashing part. So they’d come for the weekend because we had to wait for the tartrate crystals to form overnight, then rid the juice of those little buggars before we could start making jelly.
|Cute jar of grape jelly…|
Picture, if you will, (I sound like Rod Serling don’t I?) 2 kids, 2 step-stools, 2 potato mashers, 2 tubs of sticky purple grapes. Landon and Peyton each wore old t-shirts over their clothes as the grape juice squirted. I mean squirted like a super water gun on steroids. Everywhere. Really. Each year they came to make jelly, there were grape stains. ON MY KITCHEN CEILING. I kid you not. Still some of my best memories and times with those 2. Luckily they grew weary of the smashing part after a few minutes. Shannon and I would finish, cook, strain and clean up the kitchen. Landon and Peyton would watch a movie with grandpa. Usually, Shannon and I would make a dozen apple pies to split after the kids went to bed. The next day we’d make a couple batches of jelly. I’d wait to can the rest after they went back to Jackson. Landon and I would studiously go over the steps of jelly making, so he could convince his teacher he made the jelly himself as a gift for her. That little family tradition lasted about 5 happy years. I really miss making jelly with them. Hadn’t thought about that for years. Change. Everything always changes.
|Peyton 3, Ari 15, Landon 7, the era of family jelly making…|
Funny how I never equated Ken, the fringe friend, good hearted, grape guy with the impact he had on my life, (and the grandkids). How Ken probably overheard a simple conversation about John’s-elderly-visiting-canning-wife and was compelled to get involved and offer his own gifts. Ken called and asked me if I wanted his grapes last year. But we had just moved here and still had boxes everywhere. So I apologized and sadly declined. This is the first year I’ve ever had to buy grapes to make jelly. Ouch. Not sure I’m competitive with Meijer prices anymore. But it was fun and I’d like to think my grape jelly is still better than store bought. Thanks for all those years of grapes, Ken. And the marvelous memories, my fringe friend…
|The dastardly tartrate crystals…|