In a few more days, we'll fall off the cusp of Spring into the heated depths of Summer. Summers now are quite different from the ones before we moved here, as I was reminded with a jolt when I was sorting through cakepans in the pantry and ran across the bag holding my Mammaw's Chinois.
Neither she for all of her 79 years, nor I, until the past few, had ever heard it called that---it was the jelly drainer, or "that cone thing" for all those summers we picked plums and grapes and all kinds of berries, peaches and pears and cherries, all from our own fields and trees, or from the free-to-all roadside wild trees and bushes out in the hills where she grew up.
We would head out in the relative coolth of the dawn (85 degrees or so by 6 a.m.) and brave the thorns and snakes of the blackberry bramble, or the wasps' proprietary interest in all the plums and cherries. Later in the season, we'd pick all we could reach from the peach trees, then I'd climb carefully up into one after another, giving each rosygold velvet bubble a gentle fingersqueeze to check its readiness as she awaited below, holding a wide basketful of field grass to gently receive and cushion the fruit. No peach ever bruised in our care---we treated those miracles of juicy sweetness with the softest of touches, and besides, the time from tree to jellypot or cobbler was far too brief. And her avid pronouncement of "Elberders are the best for picklin'," was not to be disputed, especially as I stood, poking the required four cloves into each perfect, peeled globe before simmering them in the rich syrup.
For jam or jelly, the berries and plums and grapes were all crushed and sugared, to sit for a while in the porch shade until they gave up their fragrant juices. A white-rimmed-in-red enamel dishpan was set on the kitchen counter, the silvery cone thing set sturdily on its three rocket-feet in the center. The heavy, pointed wooden pestle (called a "maul" by Mammaw) was pressed and turned steadily until the rows of holes gave up the rich nectar, like hundreds of small faucets pouring forth melted jewels.
I loved being allowed to "turn the maul" and became quite proficient at quite a young age. It was lovely to see the pulp dropping into the whiteness of that shiny pan. A further squeezing in cheesecloth was necessary to make jelly, but jam went straight on the stove for cooking.
All the Mason jars went into a silver-weathered little old “junk house” for storage---shelves and shelves held the bounty of garden, fields, patch, brambles, roadsides. The scent of entering that screaky door, the dust motes dancing in the invading sunbeams, and the lustrous old melon-shell of my Mammaw’s wooden mandolin hanging high on one wall, are a great part of the memories.
So now I have the chinois; it hangs in my pantry on a hook, with the maul in a neat cloth bag. I walk beneath it every day, though I use it seldom in winter, save for soups or occasionally for ricing potatoes. Summer is its season, though summers here are a pale version of the burning, steamy days of those Mississippi summers of my childhood.
The Farmers' Market provides plums (though not the small golden ones which made Mammaw's jelly famous far and wide) and cherries and blueberries and all sorts of fruits of the season.They've all passed through that old jelly drainer at one time or another, and soon it will be time to take it down again, to smell the sweet juice cooking, and to remember those hot Mississippi days when we gathered up all of Summer in our hands, ran it through the Hell of an August kitchen, and put it in jars.