“This,” said my husband, putting down his spoon, “is really Tom Bombadilish! It’s the ideal that every jelly tries to be, and fails!” Of course I smiled. How could a lover of Plato and Tolkien–not to mention a new wife–fail to be pleased by such a comparison? Taking another bite myself, I knew he was right. The taste could only be called wild: richly flavored, baptized with sweetness, vivid with the memory of tree-high vines, spider webs, and early-morning sunlight.
Grape jelly is not a food I’ve spent much time or energy pondering. Lacking the symbolic heft of bread, for example, it seems, at best, a marker of childhood lunches, peanut-butter-and-jelly days of untroubled desire. As an adult, I’ve kept my love of peanut butter but tend to skip the cloying jellies in favor of honey, cinnamon, or apple butter.
Why, then, did this jelly mean so much? Why did my husband taste in it something of Middle Earth? And why did I come back to my six little jars of it five times yesterday, simply to look into its purple depths? Because when I savored its wild sweetness, its complex goodness, I knew I was tasting hope.
Hope can be complicated when everything is new. On the one hand, new doors open all around, inviting dreams and desires. But you also lose the settled expectations of the old order. The relationships you can rest in, the view out your window, the nature and value of your work — all these can become impossibly fragile. At least, that is how I have often felt during these first months of my new life. How can I hope towards a beautiful home, when my house is an RV, pretty enough on the inside, but nothing compared to the beautiful old house I owned in Alabama? And how can I hope into my vocation, when I am not teaching –the one expression of my calling which I was sure I did well?
When questions are too big to run away from, sometimes the wisest course is to run into them. When my narrow walls make me fretful, I rise early and go run. I watch the tiny homes go up, play with the kittens, say good morning to the chickens, bless the gardens, and remember that I am living in a beautiful place, so much larger than my private domestic aspirations. I run through the gap in the fence, into the neighboring subdivision. Passing house after house, I find an unexpected nature trail. The serendipity of this discovery makes me love the canopy of green, the steady sound of crushed granite beneath my feet.
Last week, Steven came with me to see the trail. As we walked, he noticed a vine of wild mustang grapes. “I can’t believe they’re still here so late in the season,” he said, plucking one. The skin was thick and sour, but the pulp inside was tantalizing and sweet. We continued our walk, dreaming together. The next morning, I returned. The vines tangled far deeper into the thicket than we had realized the day before. They climbed high into the trees, and with their purple fruit they hung like beaded curtains between the trail and the little clearing within.
The foraging was sticky, scratchy, spidery work, but after an hour I returned home with five pounds of fruit. Over the next two days I worked with the grapes, my hope growing with each step: soaking, washing, pureeing, cooking, preserving. When it finally came time to taste, I was wide-eyed, ready to eat spoonful after spoonful straight from the pot. Such goodness, waiting among forgotten trees. Such grace, bought without coin or credit. I remembered God’s call in Isaiah 55.1:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price
The greatest enemy to hope is the idea that the fulfillment of hope depends on my power. I should know better, really; my dissertation, if nothing else, taught me that hope empowers my work and self-sufficiency, not the other way round. We can and must work toward the objects of our hope, but in the end, God’s abundance supplies all the goodness we can bear.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food
Last week, God’s grace came in the form of wild mustang grapes. Surprised delight made my hands wise, and they created something beautiful. This is the wildness of hope: it gives us so much more than we could ask or imagine.
Wild Mustang Jelly
(adapted from the PickYourOwn.org instructions, here)
5 pounds wild mustang grapes
4 cups sugar
3 Tbs + 1 tsp Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin (this is important! Use regular pectin and you’ll end up drowning out the tang with too much sugar)
Wash the grapes. I did this by placing them in a large dishpan of cool water, letting them soak for a few hours, then draining them. Sort out any grapes that are wrinkled or rotten.
Puree the grapes in a food processor. (You can do this by hand with a potato masher or food mill but a processor will do a better job of releasing the juice from the skins and fruit).
Put the puree (pulp, skins, and even seeds) in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and add just enough water to cover the grapes. Heat with high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Strain the grapes. You can do this in a number of ways. Jelly purists use a very fine strainer, such as a jelly bag or even a muslin pillowcase, to obtain a clear juice. I actually prefer having some of the fruit pulp in my jelly, so I simply poured the puree through an ordinary kitchen sieve. (I also set aside the already-strained pulp in a bowl, and found that once it cooled, I could pour off even more juice). Altogether, your five pounds of fruit ought to yield 5 cups of juice. If you have less than this, you could always make up the difference with some organic grape juice.
Return the strained juice to the pot and add the pectin. Bring to a full boil over medium or high heat.
Once the mixture has begun to boil, you can test the jell by dipping an ice-cold metal spoon in the jelly. If the jelly becomes really thick as it cools to room temperature, you’re ready to proceed. If not, try adding a bit more pectin.
Preserve the jelly. Pour your jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process in a water-bath canner according to the directions on the jars or the pectin. Once processed, remove the jars, let them cool, test the seal, and then find a friend with whom to share your treasure.