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Mychal Wilmes: Gooseberry jam is sour and sweet

It was a gooseberry picking kind of day — no wind, hordes of mosquitoes and a bored grandchild.

A broken computer meant Elliot couldn't chase after dinosaurs, and the Lincoln logs had lost their appeal. Grandpa was left to find something and came up with a ball and bat. It was a hit until he noticed the lawnmower.

"Can we go for a ride?"

We could and did at a speed slow enough that he kept it in the middle of the driveway while sitting on my lap. It was, he yelled over the engine noise, the most funnest thing he's done since going to Oxbow Park. He loves the otters there and the bear, which he has named Paddington.

The wild raspberry bushes that grow in the windbreak are heavy with fruit as are the gooseberry bushes. It's a little early for both to ripen, but it got me to thinking about how important it once was to keep tabs on when the gooseberries were ready.


Mother, who made gooseberry jam, sauce and pie, insisted that I report when the gooseberry bushes that grew thick beneath the pasture hardwoods were ready. I dreaded the day when it was time. It was a miserable chore because it took hours to fill the pail and in that time the mosquitoes feasted.

The gooseberry jam recipe was easy to remember — one cup of berries and one cup of sugar. It was a syrupy mix made less so because Mother cheated on the sugar. Puckering sour pie became sour and sweet with ice cream.

Elderberry and choke cherry jelly and strawberry jams filled the fruit room shelves that were lined with newspaper pages heralding the current events of the early 1960s — space flights, the Beatles arrival, and the local church's annual ice cream social.

Mother's favorite was corn cob jelly because, she said, it was a dependably sweet during the newlywed years. I haven't had it in decades, but it can still be found at farmers markets. Dad, who liked lard and butter sandwiches dipped in his coffee, had little use for it and most other sweet spreads. The cob jelly recipe is simple — grab a dozen ears of field corn (not sweet corn) and remove the kernels. Bring the cobs to a boil in a pot for 10 minutes. Throw away the cobs and strain the remaining liquid through cheesecloth.

The remaining liquid should measure about three cups. Add 1 box of powdered fruit pectin and add additional water if needed. Return the mixture to the pot and stir in the pectin. Add four cups of sugar and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove from heat, skim the foam from the top and add a few drops of yellow food coloring if desired.

I doubt Mother messed around with food coloring.

I watch while Elliot chalks his name on the concrete along with his favorite dinosaur. I laugh — not at him but at the memory of the legendary gooseberry incident. I had picked what amounted to a plastic ice cream pail full of berries — it took three hours, maybe more. I was looking so forward to Mother's praise that I hadn't noticed that our bull was in a foul mood. He snorted and came after me with evil intent. The gooseberries did not survive the race to safety, but I did. Mother said that it was OK, that she was too tired to make pie anyway.

Dad was less moved.


"You've got to show him who's boss,'' he said.

We both knew the bull was the boss.

I intend to search for corn cob jelly at Saturday's farmers market and maybe even find a gooseberry pie made with too little sugar. I'm not sure if either will taste as good as I remember, but then again Mother often said treats always taste better if you had a hand in making them.

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