September ritual: Turning crabapples into jelly

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Somewhere, there is a 35mm slide of my grandfather, Marinus, my father, David, and me picking crabapples on our Cromwell farm sometime before 1973. The photo lives in my head every fall when I launch into the same.

The tree is now probably 20-25 feet high, rangy, with some limbs a foot through and others lopped off, and the main trunk riddled with woodpecker holes. Once last decade, I sent a snapshot to the Minnesota Extension Service asking them if my tree is dying. "No!" was the woman's reassuring answer. And now, I live as if it will survive forever or at least for my lifetime.

On a balmy September Saturday, I headed out to the tree with ladders, buckets and pails, and an instrument or two (brooms a favorite) for shaking down the red/purple globes. It was a party: cousin Martha Markusen and her husband, Greg, my husband, Rod, our grandson Micheal. I used to pick each beauty by hand. But in recent years, I've discovered that if you just rock the branches lustily, most of the fruits fly down to a soft landing on the lawn below. With so many hands, it took less than two hours to fill up four large containers.

Then the fun part starts — pouring them into the sink, washing them well and picking out blemished orbs, and loading them, stems and all, onto my mehu-miaja, a fabulous contraption that Rod bought me as a birthday present a decade or more ago. It's a Finnish invention in three parts: a bottom large-based pan for boiling water, a middle pan with a central funnel that permits the steam to rise to the top of the whole, and a top pan to hold the apples, with many pencil-sized holes in the bottom to let the juice drip down into the catching pan below. At that mid-level, a clear plastic tube protrudes to show that juice is beginning to accumulate. The tube hooks onto handles, and when you're ready to fill the sterilized quarts, you just pop the tube into each glass jar and watch the raspberry red juice flow.

Lots of memories bubble up with these rituals: Grandpa Renus and I tediously squeezing the apple juice through tight-knit cotton bags. The inevitable spills. Once my son's cousin, Annie Appelbaum, helped. Some hot juice went awry and splattered onto her arm, requiring a visit to Community Memorial Hospital's emergency room. We survived that.

I love every stage of this magic-making, from apple-on-the-bough to heavenly jelly. On the first of several nights, I made at eight quarts of juice and immediately transformed two of them into pint and half-pint jellies. It's a bit tricky to do both at once. I follow the "Joy of Cooking" instructions, and they never let me down. For these crabs, high in pectin, you only need three cups sugar to four cups juice. You have to be patient with boiling, before and after the sugar. It requires concentration to skim the foam rising to the surface. But without having to use a candy thermometer or the drop-from-the-spoon trick, you just know when the jelly's done.

Pouring jelly into small jars, I'm already gifting these to family and friends. As a thank you, Rod took one to the Fond du Lac Indians who processed our hand-harvested wild rice. Altogether, I extracted more than 15 quarts of apple juice from the group-picking effort. I'll be making more jelly the coming months.

In the middle of the hubbub, my brother Jim reminded us that Sept. 18 was our father's birthday. In the email round robin that followed, various of my brothers, nieces and nephews and cousins chimed in to confirm when and where each of our many ancestors were born and buried. When we couldn't find Marinus' birthdate, Martha found it on "findagravestone."

It didn't stop there! Jim calculated that, beginning with Hans Markusen in the 1880s, the average age of a Markusen parent when his/her first child was born has been 35 years! My son wrote back that he was 36 when his first son was born (but I was 34 when David was born, so it averages out!) And thanks to the email stream, David's discovered that Lou's birthday, Dec. 6, is the same is Grandpa Renus'! So, you see what making crabapple jelly can do for the soul.