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Maye Torrey

Catahoula Parish

Maye Torrey learned how to make jelly from wild fruit from her mother.

Jelly Maker Maye Torrey: "Berries In The Winter"

By Sylvia Frantom


Maye Torrey fondly remembered making jelly with her mother as a child, the beautiful color and flavor of fresh preserves, and also the fun of picking the fruit with her family. She was born March 1, 1931 in Catahoula Parish, and lived there all of her life. She learned to make jelly from wild fruit that they "just went to the woods and gathered." Her mother made jelly out of the wild fruit of mayhaws, muscadines, dewberries, and blackberries. Her mother also used peaches and apples which they grew. Later, May Torrey started making jelly out of elderberries, wild plums, and domesticated plums too. Her favorite way to eat jelly is on hot biscuits with butter.

According to Torrey, the main reason people made so much jelly in her mother's time was so that they could have berries and other fruit for food in the winter. She can still remember the jelly her mother's mother made. The only difference that Torrey can tell between her jelly and her mother's jelly is that her mother didn't use pectin, and her mother used a different kind of jar and method of sealing it.

She said, "My dad loved to pick berries but my mother didn't go out and do much of that." Her mother was in charge of the jelly making only. Later, as an adult, Torrey's own husband didn't help with the jelly making either, but did help her pick the berries. As an adult, Torrey enjoyed not only picking the fruit but also the social aspect of harvesting the fruit. For example, she said, "it's fun" getting together several people and picking mayhaws in the spring. Maye Torrey explains how the whole family was involved with the process of making jelly:

When I was little my dad would take the kids and we'd all go berry picking, and we'd come in with a wash tub full of berries. And my mother would get us strung out washing berries and picking berries. And we'd can them. We'd can the juice. We'd can the whole berries for pies or cobblers. We made jelly. What she'd do was cook the berries, get the juice off of them, make the jelly out of the juice, and then she'd jam the berries that was left. So that way she didn't have to waste nothing.

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When I was little

Harvesting Fruit for Canning

"My dad would take us kids and we'd go muscadine hunting. They grow on vines in trees," she said. Muscadine grapes have purple skin with a white or light yellow center when ripe. She said, "We always got the ones that were just turning because that makes it more tart and it will jell better." Torrey bragged on her mother's muscadine jelly: "They made the prettiest dark purple jelly." Her mother would put some of the purple outside skin in the jelly to make it this color. She said she had muscadines growing in her yard in Columbia, Louisiana.

Blackberry and dewberry jelly were favorites in her family. A dewberry is "like a blackberry but it has a bigger seed and it grows on the ground. Doesn't grow up tall like blackberries. Blackberries and dewberries grow wild on old fence rows and old pastures." Dewberries ripen in May and blackberries ripen in June and July. She said that she can tell the difference between the taste of blackberries and dewberries, but many people can't. "The dewberry jelly is more reddish-looking and the blackberry jelly is a black, dark color." She found the berries "all up and down her road now." She even had some "tame big berries" in her yard. Her mother gave her children blackberry juice if they had the flu to keep them from being dehydrated.

Torrey said that she did not go mayhaw picking as a child because "the mayhaw grew in the hills. Most of it is in the old sloughs and stuff in the highlands, but we lived in the swamp on the rivers." Her father had a horse so he would go into the hills and bring them back to her mother. She said that mayhaws look like little apples, smell like apples, and turn red when ripe. Torrey said that she had been making a great deal of mayhaw jelly for the past 20 years. About picking mayhaws, she said, "You can pick them up off the ground or if it rains you can skim them off the ground." She explained how some friends collected mayhaws for her, "These friends went off in the backwater and took a dip net and dipped them up, but they were dirty. I had a time cleaning those berries." Some people shake the tree to get them down but she did not. The mayhaw don't get ripe all at one time, and when they do they fall off the tree naturally. She wanted to save some for the next time she goes to pick them. She described how some people would shake the trees to extremes, "One place they even stopped them from picking them because they were hitting the trees with their trucks to shake them."

Maye Torrey said that when she was a child people didn't make jelly out of elderberries. She stated, "Back in my younger days, they told us elderberry was poison." Elderberries have white blossoms and the berries ripen in May and June. They are found "all up and down the road ditches." She states that elderberry jelly won't jell without Sure-Jell unless fresh lemon juice is added. She also made wild plum and "tame" plum jelly, or domesticated plum. She said that she preferred the taste of the wild plum jelly. Wild plums grow in the Catahoula hills.

Cooking and Canning the Jelly

This area of Catahoula Parish did not get electricity until the 1950s. Since they did not have a refrigerator, food was kept in the safe and they used a wood-burning stove. Maye Torrey also used a wood-burning stove from 1947 when she got married until 1952. When she was a child, her mother made buttermilk biscuits. Maye Torrey makes her biscuits by combining part buttermilk, part "sweet" milk, and self-rising flour. She forms the biscuits with her hands. She places a "good bit" of oil in an iron skillet, adds the biscuits to the skillet, and places the skillet in the oven to bake. She uses a wood stove at the Louisiana Art and Folk Festival in Columbia for baking her biscuits. She describes the wonderful taste of biscuits made on a wood stove, but also the work involved in this process:

I cooked on a wood stove for years. We made buttermilk biscuits. We used whatever we had to make biscuits with. We milked our own cows. They [the biscuits] are the best [when cooked] on a wood stove! We still cook on a wood stove at the art festival. I make biscuits about every year there on a wood stove. Mostly its ash wood [used in the stove]. You don't want pine because of the smoke. Ash is a soft wood and it burns good and it will get a stove real hot. He [her husband] had to saw the wood. It's a lot of work. Stove wood is small and you have to split it. There's a lot of work in it. And there's a lot of work cooking with a wood stove, too. You don't just walk up to it and turn the burner on and tell it to get hot. You have to work with it to get it the right temperature, and then it heats up the house. In the summer time, it heats up the house! But that's the way we had to cook. [Describing the heat in the summer] Don't seem like I minded it then like I do now. Of course, I'd get up and when I made breakfast on that wood stove, I'd start my dinner while that stove was hot. Then we'd eat leftovers for supper. We didn't heat up that but once a day when we'd start a fire in that wood stove.

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I cooked on a wood stove

Torrey said that beeswax was used in those days to seal the jars. She explained, "My daddy had bees and that way they had their own beeswax." Pint jars were used then and cheese cloth was tied around the top of the jar. Later, Torrey started using half-pint or pint jars and lids that are especially made for canning jelly today.

Her mother didn't use pectin, but instead "just sugar and juice." Maye Torrey thinks her mother used a cup of sugar to a cup of juice. Then she would cook it down a long time until it jelled. Sometimes it didn't jell and they would then use it like syrup. Her mother could only use fruits that were very tart for this process because they would jell. Her mother didn't use pectin because "they lived way out in the country. You just used what you had. There was no going to the store." Her mother taught her to use a spoon to test the jelly to make sure it was done. When the jelly slowly "sloughs off" the spoon then it's ready. She states, "I like a good firm jelly. I don't like a thin jelly."

Her mother would cook the berries and get the juice from them. She would make jelly out of the juice after straining it through cheesecloth. Then she would make jam out of the pulp and peelings that were left. Torrey said that her mother didn't waste anything. Maye Torrey uses a large boiler for cooking her jelly and follows these basic steps:

Wash the fruit. Get my juice made. Wash my jars and keep them in boiling water until I get ready to put the jelly in and to put on the lids and seal them up. Now when I go to do my jelly, I measure my ingredients, the sugar and the juice. Put my juice in my boiler or cooker and put Sure-Jell in there. Bring that to a boil. Then I put sugar in, slowly pour it in, and bring it back to a boil. Cook it how long you want to cook it to make it jell.

She says to put the hot jelly or jam in the jars and seal them. Then turn the jars bottom up for five minutes to "kill the bacteria between the lid and the jelly so that it won't mold." To make jam, Torrey says, "It has to be cooked down low to be a good jam." She uses this jam to make jelly rolls and jelly or jam cakes. She also likes it on toast and biscuits.

Maye Torrey enjoys making jelly with her friends from the Extension Service Homemakers' Club. For over fifteen years at the art festival in her community, the club has sold the jelly that they made. She said, "We have made one hundred pints in one day. We have five or six of us that get together and have a jelly making day." In 1994, they charged five dollars a pint for this jelly and jam.

Since her mother's time she learned to use pectin, seal jars with lids instead of wax, and use some new developments from the Extension Service agent in her area. But she still used most of the techniques her mother taught her. Maye Torre reflects that she can "make a pretty good batch of jelly in about an hour. When you get used to making jelly, it don't take long to make it, and I've made a lot of it."

Sylvia Frantom wrote this article as a part of the Delta Folklife Project in 1994 and she revised it in 2012 for Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife. She is a native of Louisiana with a heartfelt interest in Louisiana history and folklore.