This story is from Lyn Fenwick, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
To read more of Isaac's 19th century journal entries see Lyn Fenwick's blog.
When Isaac arrived on the Kansas prairie in 1878 the land was waving grass from horizon to horizon, with little else left to accentuate the scene because of the prairie fires that swept the land so often. There were exceptions. In the spring, wild flowers, whose tubers and seeds lay waiting, burst into bloom adding splashes of color amidst the swaying grass. At the same time, thickets of sand hill plum bushes opened their delicate white blossoms, offering hope to the settlers of fresh fruit to come, for somehow, enough of the thickets survived the flames to reproduce.
Today's plains dwellers cannot appreciate what a welcome sight those blooming bushes were to the early settlers, who longed for the taste of fresh fruit. Sand hill plums are hardly bigger than cranberries, and unlike cranberries, the fruit has a central seed nearly half the size of the plum itself, leaving very little edible fruit between the seed and the outer skin. Regardless, the settlers enjoyed the beauty and slight fragrance of the blossoms and crossed their fingers that frost would not return to freeze the blossoms and deprive them of that season's tart little plums.
Isaac had a thicket on his "Timber Hill" but he had also saved seeds from some of the best plums to plant more bushes near his house, finding that it took the seeds two or three seasons to germinate. They were also difficult to transplant because the bushes colonize from one bush with a deep root to form shallow-rooted bushes around it. These shallow-rooted bushes are unlikely to survive if transplanted, and it is difficult to tell without digging which among the bushes is the one with the deep root. Isaac explained in his Journal: "I took up some select plum bushes on Timber Hill and set them in rows N. of house patch, 2 rows E. & W. Transplanting plums generally failures by many. I determined to experiment at least, then also transplant some in the spring."
Because of the effort he had expended in both planting seeds and transplanting the deep-rooted bushes, he was annoyed when one of his neighbors raided his plums. "Lady Frack yesterday out on a plum raid through my door yard of nicest plums, vengeance mine, by calling nearest neighbors in to strip every bush." Today, with farmers having cleared fields for crops, few plum thickets remain. On Isaac's old homestead only some scraggly bushes have managed to survive in the fence row.
As a bachelor, Isaac had learned to cook for himself, but he never mentioned attempting to preserve fruit. It would be nice to imagine that one of the neighbors who stripped the plum bushes to spite Mrs. Frack might have made a jar of plum jelly for Isaac, but he only describes the annual pleasure of gorging on whatever fruit was in season.
For my family, enough jars of sand hill plum jelly were canned every summer to last through the year. They were stored with the canned tomatoes, green beans, and two kinds of pickles on rows of shelves in the basement, the walls a kaleidoscope of tomato red, green beans, mossy green dills, noxiously-tinted (with green cake coloring) 3-day lime pickles, and the glow of the scarlet plum jelly. I do not continue the tradition of canning vegetables, except rare years when I can the 3-day lime pickles, but I do make plum jelly. Last year's late frost and summer drought left only a lonesome plum here and there, and we are down to the last jar of the previous year's jelly. One day, I set that jar with one that we received as a wedding favor in the window to admire the beauty of sunlight through the jelly.
Plum jelly is delicious, but it is impossible for me to separate the flavor of childhood memories from the taste of the jelly. Plum bushes have thorns, and picking the plums is a prickly business. They ripen at the hottest time of year, and filling a pail of the small plums is an exercise in endurance of heat, sweat, gnats, and often, mosquitoes. Once in the kitchen, with the jars and the lids sterilized, and the plums rinsed clean with all the stems removed, the process of cooking, mashing the last bit of juice from the pulp and skins, straining through cheese cloth to assure the jewel-like appearance, adding the sugar and a bit of lemon with Sure-gel to give you a little more insurance that the jelly will set, pouring the hot, sticky liquid jelly into the jars, sealing the lids and listening for the "pop" to know the seal is good, and finally cleaning the stickiness off the jars before putting the jelly on the shelves — all of this is the stuff of my memories, and when you add to that the memories of sitting around so many breakfast tables with loved ones it is impossible for any store-bought, expensive gourmet jelly to ever taste as good!
When we finish that last jar of jelly, we, like Isaac, will be forced to await another season's crop from the tough and prickly sand hill plum bushes with their sweet-tart little plums.
Photos by Lyn Fenwick
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