"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 50: Jelly

Having dispatched the lizards in the opening paragraph of her 12 November 1959 letter, Bishop shifts a major gear, returning to one of their favourite subjects: food — more specifically, the making of it. Before settling into the serious details, she remarks on a technical matter about the letter Grace was holding in her hands: “I am so delighted to have these new black typewriter ribbons.” The quality of the type of this letter is significantly clearer than the previous one, so many months ago. It is easy for us with our computers, tablets and devices to forget how “manual” Bishop’s typing was. The new ribbons were brought back by “our friend Mary Morse,” who had returned from time in the “U.S. and brought us presents.” The new typewriter ribbons were a boon to her letter writing, but “another friend” (perhaps May Swenson) had sent an even more prized gift, via Morse: “a pair of binoculars — I’m quite overwhelmed,” something she had longed for, but didn’t think she “could afford.” She would use them “to watch birds here [that is, at Samambaia] and ships in Rio.” Bishop noted that they were “Japanese and very good.”

After this introduction Bishop signalled the real shift: “—//” and introduced the next subject of this paragraph with a query: “I had an English bookshop send you two little cookbooks a while ago — I wonder if you got them yet?” Bishop is referring to two little volumes that Grace had in fact received. Bishop had sent them sometime in early 1957 (she mentioned her intention to do so in a letter dated 10 January 1957, which I discussed in blogpost, #26 of this series).

Clearly, Grace was remiss in not only letting Bishop know she’d received them, but in thanking Bishop for them. No matter. Bishop brought them up because she wanted to talk about jelly: “the jelly one is the one I use all the time and it is awfully good.” The second one, she noted, “I haven’t seen myself yet, but it sounded good!” These books are located in the Bulmer family archive at Acadia University and are described in the finding aid for this collection thus:

I.v.33. Jams, jellies and preserves: how to make them / Ethelind Fearon. – London: Herbert Jenkins, 1956. – 96p. Dust jacket slightly torn. – Gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Grace Bulmer Bowers.
I.v.34. Biscuits and American cookies: how to make them / Ambrose Heath. – London: Herbert Jenkins, 1953. – 96p. Dust jacket slightly torn. – Gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Grace Bulmer Bowers.

Bishop then launched into a technical aspect of jelly-making, as if she and Grace were in medias res of a serious discussion: “I made jelly for years without using the alcohol test for pectin — now find it is so easy and makes the whole thing so fool-proof I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.” Bishop then goes on to explain how to do this test: after “extracting the juice,” “put a spoonful in a cup and cover it with another spoonful of alcohol — rubbing alcohol is good enough.” If the juice “jells, more or less, or at least sticks together, in 5 minutes — it’s ready to add the sugar.” Bishop noted that the little book she’d begifted her aunt “tells this” test, but referred to “alcohol as ‘methylated [sic] spirits’ in the English way.” She didn’t know if this term would confuse Grace, or if “in Canada” such a term was also used.

After this little treatise on fool-proof jelly, Bishop boasted to her aunt that she had “made 34 jars of JABOTICABA jelly last month.”
I guess you would want a fool-proof method when making that kind of quantity! Undoubtedly, Grace had no idea what Jaboticaba was, but Bishop writes as if her aunt did, noting that it was “a wonderful year for them,” meaning the fruit of this strange tree.
As if all this production wasn’t enough, she also wrote, “and a few more of PITANGA,” yet another exotic fruit that Grace would never have seen. Well supplied with jelly, Bishop was also “trying Jaboticaba liquer [sic],” but the results of that experiment were not yet known. This beverage “comes out rather like grape,” she observed, whereas “Pitangas are bright orange, semi-transparent, like little six-sided lanterns, lovely things — we have one tree.”
When I went to Brazil in 1999, I had one meal at a rather posh restaurant in Oscar Niemeyer’s Grande Hotel in Ouro Prêto. I don’t remember the main course, but I do remember the dessert. My companions and I chose a plate of various preserves and conserves (with cheese and biscuits, I think), including jaboticaba jelly. It was an almost black purple, vibrantly sweet with a real zing to it. At least that is how I remember it. I suspect there was Pitanga preserve, too.
(Grande Hotel, Ouro Preto)
Bishop’s November letter shifted gears again in the next paragraph, this time to sorrowful news about the death of a friend, someone Grace also knew. More of that in the next post.
(Jaboticaba tree!)

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