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My grandmother was relaxed about canning; it was something she did all her life. Her daughter, my mother—not so much. To her, standing over a hot stove stirring boiling jam was the last thing she wanted to do, ever.

My father, who adored homemade relishes, pickles, jellies—I believe I got my condiment gene from him—saw this attitude as a moral failing. “It is her one fault,” he would say nobly, as he scraped away inside the Welch’s grape jelly jar.

Still, this time of year, my mother would start to think about our neighbor’s venison that would soon be in our freezer. Both she and my father loved spiced grapes with game. Then she would sigh heavily, pull her copy of Charleston Receipts down from the shelf, and get to work.

My job was to slip the skins off of eight pounds or so of fruit, which isn’t nearly as time-consuming as it sounds; set the skins aside in a wet, slippery heap; and chuck the pulp into our biggest pot. Next came counting out cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and blades of mace.

“Cheesecloth,” Mom would say every year, peering at the instructions. “What on earth is that?” Then she would bundle the spices in one of my father’s oldest, softest linen handkerchiefs and expertly tie it with fishing line (much easier to find in our house than kitchen string), sling it into the pot along with the vinegar, and let the grapes cook until they were soft.

The food mill came next, always an adventure, and then the seedless pulp—”It smells like wine,” Mom would say, inhaling deeply—would go back into the pot, along with the skins. After that mixture came to a boil, the salvaged spice bundle and an ungodly amount of sugar would be added. “Boy, this is really hot,” Mom would say, giving the slurry a stir. “Reminds me of boiling oil. Too bad we don’t have ramparts.”

I suppose this was the time in my life when I learned to go to the Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition (unabridged) in the living room and look something up, instead of relying on another person to explain things. It says something about parents when a dictionary stand—and next to it, a child’s step stool—is given pride of place.

That same dictionary resides in my living room now. Of course, of course! I use these days, or my handy desk-friendly Webster’s Third (abridged) instead. Unless, that is, I have a hankering to see those captivating illustrations—printed from mounted copper plates made from line drawings—or finger the notes my parents left over the years. “Spring forward, Fall back,”  my father wrote urgently on index cards filed under both S (“Spreader Car—Spring Tool”) and F (“Fait Nouveau — Fallow Chat).

This afternoon, the apartment is filled with the foxy, funky, half-wild aroma of Concord grapes cooking down for Sam’s jam. We’ll go to sleep tonight hearing the ping of each jar sealing itself. Can’t wait to try it with game.


Comment from Jon Rowley
Time November 19, 2010 at 6:23 am

I love it that the dictionary is almost your main character.

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