The strong smell hastily burned through the air – in no time at all it moved through the kitchen, den and down the hall to our bedroom. My sister and I were supposed to be sleeping; how could we when so much commotion was occurring in the kitchen? We began to cough and ran to the kitchen to see what was happening. The burning sensation that caused coughing and watering eyes was even stronger in the kitchen. Mama and Daddy had the back door ajar and the stove vent open, much to no avail. They worked quickly, chopping, cooking, moving pots and transferring jars. My sister and I realized they were making and canning pepper jelly…again. Nearly 30 years ago now, the scene still easily plays through my mind.
With the best of luck and a little rain, you may be reaping the benefits of what you have sown. Hopefully your garden is producing lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more. The bounty of a summer garden is delicious, beautiful and unfortunately, fleeting. In an effort to make your summer harvest last into fall and winter, perhaps you preserve your fresh produce by canning or freezing. Pickled okra and cucumbers, canned tomatoes and various jellies are wonderful treasures to pull from your cabinet after the long, hot days of summer have past. Seeming old-fashioned and somewhat mysterious, I shied away from attempts to can or preserve anything. My husband, a green-thumbed gardener, suggested it several times over the years but never pushed. I felt safer freezing vegetables – it seemed like much less of a commitment. Freezing the vegetables was easy, not difficult like canning. Jars, bands, lids, vacuum tight seals – canning sounded complicated!
A bumper crop of jalapeno peppers covered the kitchen counter. Too hot to eat – I had already prepared a couple of different recipes only to discover these peppers were hot little sons-of-a-gun – I decided maybe I could make and can a batch of pepper jelly. Not quite sure where to begin, I "Googled" for pepper jelly recipes. The Internet produced its own bumper crop of options, only making things more complicated for a newbie canner like me. What to do? Like any Southern girl would do, I called Mama for her recipe, help and encouragement.
I heard all about the times she and Daddy made and canned pepper jelly together. She laughed as she told me the stories I remember. When she shared the recipe, Mama told me about who gave the recipe to her – he was such a nice man and how Daddy knew him. (Of course, I also heard who the person was related to, where he had worked and how he died!) Before we hung up, she encouraged me to call one of my great-aunts for her pepper jelly recipe. After all, Aunt Betty Jean is a great cook and her pepper jelly has always been delicious.
My Great-Aunt Betty Jean lives in a real farmhouse in a rural area in Alabama. She and my Great-Uncle Buddy have been married more than 65 years! The beautiful farmhouse and surrounding yard look much like they would have when they married. Stepping into their house is like stepping back in time. This farming couple is the real deal. If anyone could help and encourage me to try my hand at canning, Aunt Betty Jean would certainly have the know-how and experience to do so. When I called her, she kindly shared her recipe with me. The best thing about it, she gave me lots of details and information most recipes do not include. I got little tips on the best way to remove the seeds from the peppers, when to watch for the cooking mixture to boil over the pot and what to expect when I added the Certo. She eased my fears and concerns about canning the jelly too, like how to best handle the jars and what to do with the lids and bands. I felt prepared and ready to overcome my canning fears!
Much of the preparation-process I handled before my husband even knew what I was doing. By the time he came inside for lunch, those hot little peppers were chopped and combined with all the proper ingredients in my biggest cooking pot. He and I decided it would be in the best interest of everyone involved if we cooked the mixture on the outside burner attached to the grill. After all, he had heard my stories of burning lungs and eyes! Once the outdoor cooking process began, I moved indoors to prepare the jars, bands and lids. I peeked outside only to see him cleaning off the back porch with the water hose. Apparently, the mixture boiled over the pot and all over the porch! (I felt a little frustrated but realized I did not relay to him the information about when Aunt Betty Jean said the pot would likely boil over!) Eventually we moved the operation completely back indoors. Suddenly my husband sprung into action! He mysteriously knew exactly what to do with the jars and how to move forward with our canning adventure. When I questioned him about what he knew about canning, he guiltily shared he had once dated a girl who loved to can! At any rate, we managed to get the jelly mixture into the jars, and the lids and bands on each one. The entire process took much less time than I initially anticipated.
In spite of the fact my hands burned for hours after cutting and chopping the peppers (Aunt Betty Jean warned me!), I enjoyed my first canning experience. And I am accepting my husband’s statement about the canning ex-girlfriend as a personal challenge – if some old girlfriend of his could can, surely I must be able to do it! Miraculously, all of the lids on the jars sealed, giving me just the encouragement I need to try my hand at another canning opportunity!
Many of you purchased your seeds, young vegetable plants and other gardening supplies at your local Quality Co-op. Be sure to check with your local store for your canning needs, too. The friendly folks at the Co-op will be glad to share their canning experiences and maybe even a recipe or two. Good luck and may all your lids seal tight!
Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.