For those of us whose goal is eventual self-sufficiency, harvest time has a way of changing from a joyous celebration of reaping to a nightmarish race against the clock. Anyone who tries to raise and preserve a year's supply of food knows the helpless feeling of watching fruits and vegetables relentlessly mature while the pile of undone preserving and storing tasks diminishes so slowly.
As September approached last year, I found myself — as usual — in just such a predicament . . . for no matter how hard I try to plan my fall work, I always end up with more to preserve than I have hours to do the job. I wanted to cry as I watched a beautiful box of purple Concord grapes grow riper and riper. With my corn at its peak and three bushels of peaches at my feet, I felt sure that the sweet clusters would be good for little else but wine by the time I got to them. Once again, nature's generosity had clashed with my scheduling.
"What are you going to do with those?" my mother asked, pointing at the box of grapes.
"Make grape juice. The kids love juice. But how? I'll have to cook, and strain, and . . . oh, I . . . ." I was truly beside myself. We worked in silence, our minds searching for a solution, until — suddenly — my mother came up with a recollection of "how Grandma did it".
Soon, under Mom's direction, I was quickly gathering my largest spare jars to make grape juice: quarts, half–gallons, and gallons. These I rewashed and scalded while a kettle of water heated on the stove.
I then dipped the grapes in cold water, stemmed them, and placed them whole in the clean, empty containers. (Frankly, I guessed at amounts . . . but I'd estimate three quarters to one cup of fruit per each quart of capacity.) A splash of honey — about a tablespoon of the sweetening for each cup of grapes followed the fruit into the jars. That doesn't sound like much, but the Concords had been picked ripe and the results were delicious.
By that time the kettle was boiling. So I set the jars in a pan of hot water, filled each with scalding liquid to within half an inch of its top, wiped the rims clean, put on the hot lids, and tightened them down snugly with the bands. That was all! Within an hour of my mother's bright idea, I had saved the grapes and was back working with the corn and peaches.
I don't remember how long I waited to sample the juice . . . but what I do know is that the whole jarful disappeared before I got a second glass. Of all the containers I put up just one is left, safely hidden at the bottom of the ironing basket, to be enjoyed at the next birthday breakfast.
In retrospect, I can see that I made two giant mistakes. Number One: I put up about a tenth as much juice as I should have. The method described here lets me deal with grapes so fast that I can now plan on canning — in a single afternoon or two — all my family will use in one year . . . which could prove to be quite a lot! True, there are only four of us, but we don't believe in buying commercially prepared beverages. Healthwise and dollarwise, I'll be far ahead if I purchase an extra bushel of grapes and a small jar of honey and go into production on a larger scale.
In that case, I'll also need to buy a few more gallon jars . . . because Mistake Number Two was not canning the juice in large enough containers. A quart disappeared so quickly that I don't intend to work with any units smaller than a gallon this season. ("Larger", of course, means "fewer", with a consequent saving of lids . . . another cost that keeps rising.)
I've been told, incidentally, that gallon jugs with rubber-lined caps can be recycled for this purpose. If the tops are heated and screwed onto containers of hot liquid, they'll usually reseal . . . and if they don't, I'll add the juice to the wine barrel and salvage it anyhow.
After my experience with old-fashioned grape juice, I'm more convinced than ever that Grandma's simple methods are sometimes far superior to our modern ways. That's hardly surprising. Gran's family, after all, was self-sufficient out of necessity . . . and with nine children to care for, the homemaker had to work fast.
The technique Mom dug out of her memory saves not only time but two kinds of energy: the planet's (because the preservation method calls for little cooking and there are no straining rags to wash in hot water) . . . and mine. And, at harvest time — when my most serious energy crisis is a personal one — I really appreciate that last point.