Lately my walks through our woods and meadows have left me feeling disappointed. This year’s crop of wild fruits seems so meager that I fear the only jelly I will be making will be crabapple. It makes me long for the summers when my children were small and the wild raspberries that grew along the edge of the woods were so abundant their canes bent nearly to the ground. One warm day years ago, after the early-morning dew had dried, my daughter Sarah and I tied our berry baskets around our waists and set to picking the sun-ripened fruit; it was an education, for sure. When Sarah popped a berry into her mouth, I laughed at her puckered face. Clearly we would need to add more sugar than usual to this years batch. By noon our noses were sunburned, our fingers were stained red, and our baskets brimmed with bright berries.
Our bounty of fruit made a crimson mountain when we emptied our buckets into the kitchen sink, where the raspberries bobbed about in cool water as we picked out the stems and leaves. We filled my largest pots to the very top with the glistening fruit, added a few crabapple slices for pectin, then set them on a low flame while we took sandwiches out to the porch for lunch. Soon the smell of the simmering berries wafted through the open window, drawing my honeybees to the screen. They hovered hopefully, eager to find the source of the sweetness.
After lunch, when the berries had released their juice, Sarah held cheesecloth sacks open as I carefully ladled the hot berries into them. Pulling the drawstrings of the jelly bags closed, we hung them from the knobs of the kitchen’s overhead cabinets, carefully positioned above large bowls set on a layer of newspaper that lined the countertops beneath them. Plip, plop, plip: Big red drops dripped into the crockery. By evening the bowls were almost full; by morning the dripping had ceased.
We poured the juice into a big pot, added some sugar, and set the mixture to boiling. Soon the kitchen was filled with clouds of sweet-scented steam. Sarah was eager to test for jelling, but I told her that it would be quite a while before the syrup was close to the jelling point.
“I hate waiting for things,” Sarah grumbled.
“But when the final product is so sweet, it’s worth it, don’t you think?” I asked.
She nodded grudgingly. “But why does it take so long?”
“Fruit is mostly water,” I replied. “It just takes a long time to boil it all away so that you get the true, rich essence of its flavor.” I paused, “Sort of like people.”
Sarah looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Think how long it takes for people to grow up,” I said. “You don’t really know their true nature until they’ve been on this earth for a fairly long time. For some people, a lot of useless stuff has to boil away before they become truly sweet.”
Sarah thought for a moment, then smiled. “Sort of like Anne?”
I NODDED. ANNE LIVED DOWN THE ROAD from us and had gone to school with our older children. All through school, they brought home tales of her meanness. She had been a tease and a bully as a child, then blossomed into true rebellion and sullenness as a teenager. If she happened to be in the yard when we rode by on our bicycles, she acknowledged our waves of greeting by turning her back. She had few friends.
Her parents wrung their hands in despair. Our children avoided her. Finally, after four rocky years of high school, she went off to college. And then a miracle occurred. Perhaps it was leaving home; maybe a professor stirred something in her that had been hidden all those years. Whatever it was, the summer after her freshman year, Anne waved gaily as we drove by her house and greeted us with affection when we saw her at a concert in the park. She plopped down merrily on our picnic blanket and told us that she was working at a local camp for handicapped children that summer. She chattered happily about her love of biology and added that she hoped to become a teacher.
When she rejoined her family, my husband leaned over and whispered, “Who was that young woman and what has she done with Anne?”
I laughed; she obviously just needed some time.
After graduation, Anne volunteered for VISTA in Georgia. The last I’d heard, she was pursuing a master’s degree in special education.
SARAH SKIMMED SOME FOAM OFF THE RASPBERRY JUICE. “YUP, JUST LIKE Anne,” I said, giving her a hug. “Sometimes it takes a long time for good things to happen and you just have to be patient. And never give up hope.”
An hour later, when Sarah wandered back into the kitchen, the syrup had begun to bubble with the sort of heavy, thick burbling that indicated it was close to ready. She dipped a spoon into the mixture and held it over a saucer. A thick stream of juice ran off and hit the plate in a puddle.
“Not ready yet, is it?” Sarah asked.
“Nope,” I said. “Let’s check again in about 15 minutes.”
When we tried again, the single stream had divided into two, but the mixture still ran about on the plate. Ten minutes later, the two streams had formed a wide sheet and fell off the spoon in a broad ribbon. The blobs hit the plate and stayed put.
“Finally!” Sarah said with a happy sigh.
I smiled. “Bring on the jars.”
As we ladled out the jelly, I thought about how long it took to turn tart berries into sweet jelly and realized that patience is as much a necessity in life as in cooking. Sweet rewards are granted to those who wait.