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Jars of crab apple jelly line Jenny Schlecht's countertop. She made the jelly like her Grandma Marguerite used to. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

The Sorting Pen: Reliving the sweet tradition of Grandma's crab apple jelly

When I was growing up — and by growing up, I mean at least through my senior year of high school — my Mom would make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my grandma Marguerite's crab apple jelly to take to school for lunch.

The tree that provided those apples was a big part of my childhood. It sometimes served as a slightly-off-the-path second base in wiffle ball games. It was the easiest tree to climb in Grandma's yard, with branches low enough for little feet to step onto. And it provided ammunition for all of us cousins to throw at each other. But mostly, it provided the juice for what I proclaim to be the best crab apple jelly in the world.

The tree is still in Grandma's yard, though it's been trimmed in a way that limits its climbing potential — something my girls will lament during our trips back to Montana. But it's been years since the apples were used for jelly. Grandma proclaimed some years ago that she was not interested in the long hours of the canning process.

My carryover of Grandma's jelly long gone, I would buy crab apple jelly at stores or farmers markets. Some were way off the mark and others were close, but it was never just right.

One day this summer, as my daughters and I were walking to the garden, I realized that there was a treasure trove of crab apple trees in the tree rows around the farm we live on in central North Dakota. There were tiny little apples and slightly bigger ones, all with something of the bitter tang I remember of the apples from Grandma's yard.

I hemmed and hawed a little about whether I wanted to attempt the process by myself. I'm not overly careful and have a tendency to be a bit messy in the kitchen. I have very little of the steadiness of grandma Marguerite about me. But I wanted that jelly!

My girls and I pulled a little red wagon around to various trees and filled two boxes: one with little red apples and one with slightly bigger red and pink apples.

We started with the slightly bigger apples. I let Reanna, 7, cut alongside me. Kennedy, 3, was not happy about not getting a knife, so we gave her the job of putting each apple into a bowl on a scale until we had enough. Then we juiced and boiled them and added an embarrassing amount of sugar. When it was all done, there were rows of pretty pink jars on my counter, with a little extra still left in the pot. I waited until that extra portion cooled before I put it on a piece of bread. I was a little worried — would it be even close to as good as Grandma's? But I was giddy to find that it was nearly exactly what I had been imagining.

While I'm ecstatic at my little collection of jars — and plan at least one more batch with the smaller apples — I'm more proud at having done something that I learned from my Grandma with my girls at my side. With any luck, they can help keep the sweet tradition going.