Many years ago, when we were living in Kentucky, I made my first batch of wild grape jelly from fox grapes we picked along recently abandoned farm fields in Land Between the Lakes, the 170,000 acre national recreation area between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake created by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The area had been established only six years before we moved to Murray, Kentucky, and so the formerly developed areas in what was generally a forested peninsula were easy to access and enjoy.
Our good friends, Dave and Toni, lived near Kentucky Lake, and Dave had a twenty-foot Jon boat which he used for fishing, and which we all enjoyed as a way to find primitive campsites along the lake. One day when Dave and I were casting for bass along along a bay we called Panther Creek, we noticed a large Muscadine grapevine loaded with green fruit hanging over the water.
We kept close watch on that vine and researched recipes for making wine. As the grapes began to turn color, Dave motored by the vine almost every day. Muscadines are a prized grape in the south, and we wanted to harvest them before the competition. Dave phoned one day to tell me that the grapes looked ripe, so I told him to expect me the next morning.
I was standing at the bow of the Jon boat as Dave eased us toward the vine. It looked like there were enough grapes to make five gallons of wine. As I was reaching for a branch to steady the boat, I saw something white in the vine near my arm. In about a hundredth of a second I was ordering Dave, “Back, back, back!” It was a beautiful cottonmouth, probably four feet long, but it looked like a ten-footer as it wound itself around its cache of grapes. We understood why no one picked any of those Muscadines that summer.
Poisonous snakes were common in western Kentucky, but I told myself that the hospital staff were surely well-trained to treat snakebite victims and followed the advice of local folks who told me to watch where I was putting my feet and my hands. I was a little less confident a couple of years later after Dave was bitten by a pigmy rattlesnake while escorting a troop of Cub Scouts in Land Between the Lakes. When he got to the emergency room after dropping off the scouts at a parent’s home, he was greeted by a nurse who was amazed that an arm could swell so fast and by a young doctor who came in reading a book titled How to Treat Snakebites.
Dave told me, “I was a bit nervous when I saw the book, but then I said to myself. I teach English and tell my students you can learn a lot from books, so I relaxed.” He spent several days in the hospital but recovered and spent the next forty years teaching college students.
I never saw any poisonous snakes when picking wild grapes, though friends assured me that deserted farms in Land Between the Lakes were favorite haunts of copperheads. However, I admit that I did not dawdle and watched where I put my hands and feet while picking the raw material needed to make our jelly.
If you like commercial Concord grape jelly, you will love Wild Grape Jelly. Concord grapes are a cultivated variety of wild or fox grapes, so the flavor is similar, but the jelly you get when you pick your own grapes and prepare the juice as detailed below will be ten times better than the puny stuff from the store.
Here is what to do.
4 cups prepared juice
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar, measured into a separate bowl
1/2 tsp. butter
1 pouch CERTO Fruit Pectin
Start by picking about six quarts of wild grape clusters. Wash and remove the grapes from the stems. Put the grapes into a large saucepan or Dutch oven and add enough cold water to cover the grapes by about a quarter of an inch.
Bring the grapes to a boil and cook them for about ten minutes. Use a potato masher to crush the grapes in the water and continue cooking for another five to ten minutes.
Rinse a clean dish towel. Line a colander with the towel and set it over a large bowl. Ladle the mashed grapes and juice into the colander to strain the juice. You will probably need a second large bowl to hold all the juice. When the grape mixture has given up its liquid, you have prepared grape juice.
At this point you can either make your jelly or cool and refrigerate the juice for later use.
To make the jelly, start by washing and sterilizing nine one cup jelly jars by inverting them in a baking pan containing about an inch of water. Bring the water to a boil, and keep a slow boil for four or five minutes. Turn off the heat, let the water cool a few minutes, then drain the jars on a rack until you are ready to fill them.
Put the prepared juice and water into a four-quart pot or Dutch oven over low heat.
Measure the sugar into a mixing bowl and stir it into the juice over low heat. Raise the heat to medium and put a half teaspoon of butter into the juice. Stir every minute or so while the juice is coming to a boil and very often after it is boiling.
Wild grape juice has a lot of fiber in it, which will rise to the top as the juice comes to a boil. Skim the foam from the juice. After the juice has boiled for three or four minutes, you should have skimmed most of the foam from the juice.
Raise the heat and stir the fruit pectin into the juice. Bring the juice to a full rolling boil (a boil which cannot be stirred down) and boil for one minute. Remove the pan from the heat and skim any remaining foam.
Ladle the jelly into the prepared jars and seal them either with two thin layers of paraffin or with jar lids and rings. Hand-tighten the rings and process the jars in a boiling water bath for five minutes. The water in the canner should be about an inch over the tops of the jars.
Remove the jars from the canner and allow them to cool.
NOTES: I have used the same dish towel for at least thirty years. It has a beautiful assortment of stains from various kinds of fruits. If you want to do the same, simply remove the pulp from the towel after you have finished straining the fruit, rinse the towel well, let it dry and wash it with your next load of household laundry.
Measuring the sugar into a bowl and noting the number of cups on a scrap of paper before stirring it into the juice is one of the most important instructions in this whole procedure. Speaking from experience, I can assure you that if you are simply adding cups of sugar to the juice, the time will come when something will distract you. The telephone or doorbell may ring, someone may ask a question, or your favorite toddler may trip and fall. When you return to making jelly, you will suddenly realize that you can’t be sure whether you had added five or six cups of sugar before the interruption. Believe me when I say that this creates a nasty feeling in your stomach.
Muscadines make wonderful jelly too, but I never picked any. Whenever I got close to a vine, I kept seeing that white mouth.