Holly Ebel: Assisi sister traffics in jam
The Olmsted County Fair doesn't start until July 27, but there is at least one person who is already getting her jams and jellies ready.
Sister Rafael Tilton is well known for her jam expertise by those who run the fair, as well as the Sisters at Assisi Heights, who look forward to a little dollop of her preserves on their crackers or bread.
There isn't much that grows that Tilton cannot turn into a prize-winning confection, from strawberries and raspberries to elderberries and chokecherries. A particular favorite this time of year is rhubarb, which she grows in her garden on the Assisi property.
"Rhubarb is so versatile," she said. "You can pair it with just about anything for a great jam or jelly, like apples, strawberries, raspberries, pears, even just by itself is good."
Her favorite is blackberry jelly when she can get blackberries. While all of her other recipes are from the Sure-Jell box, that particular one remains Tilton's secret.
Over the years there are not too many county fair competitionss she has missed entering, whether with canned goods or flowers. Fair competitions were a passion instilled in her at a young age by her mother.
"She encouraged us to always take something to the fair," she said. Tilton took that to heart, and wherever she has lived she has done just that, always walking away with ribbons. A lot of ribbons, in fact. At one competition, the Ravalli County Fair in Montana, she entered at least 30 jars and every one won a ribbon.
"I have a trunk full (of ribbons)," she said. "In fact, I could probably weave a quilt out of them if I wanted to."
Canning 30 jars of anything would seem to be quite a challenge. How does she do it? "Little by little," she said.
Living in a convent, Tilton has limited kitchen and storage space and therefore has become an expert at making just one or two jars at a time, adjusting the Sure-Jell directions to fit that amount.
"An aunt taught me how to make small batches," she said. "Even so, to have success everything has to be done just right."
Though her mother encouraged her five children to participate in local fairs, she also set a valuable example.
"We grew up in a town in rural southern Montana and she always had a garden full of all sorts of vegetables and berries as well as fruit trees," Tilton said. "Every year she would put up at least 450 quarts to get us through the winter. Those were Depression years and things were scarce, but we managed. We also had chickens, rabbits and a cow for milk. Where food was concerned we were very self-sufficient and her garden was a big part of that."
During her career as a nun, Tilton has been to many different areas and always made sure she was able to grow something, even in just the smallest of plots.
"I love having my hands in the soil," she said. These days she has a nice-sized plot at Assisi where she grows a variety of things, including strawberries and the rhubarb as well as flowers, which she also takes to the Olmsted County Fair.
Tilton is a stickler for following the rules exactly as laid out by fair organizers, among them the labeling and processing of the jams and jellies. Though she doesn't have a large canner or a pressure cooker, she does have an old asparagus cooker, which she says is the perfect size for processing one or two jars. "It gets the job done," she said.
So all you fairgoers out there, this year watch for Sister Rafael Tilton's entries. And count the ribbons.