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Haw jelly

Posted: February 7, 2012 11:14 a.m.
Updated: February 8, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Combine juice from the May haw berry, from crabapples, along with some sugar and you have makings of the finest jelly ever to grace a biscuit or piece of toast. End of subject, you muse, but the paper’s fresh, and you have a sweet tooth after downing a real Southern breakfast. “Hon, we got any haw jelly?” Now, unless you live in a kind of narrow swath of geography between Wedgefield and Camden, bordered south by the Wateree River swamp and north a tad on the Yankee side of old and new Highway 521, your answer is going to be something akin to, “haw what?”

 “No jelly affecionado here,” you scoff, but enlightenment can be tasty. Deer season is finally over; no more snapshots showing 7-year-old Sarah bagging her first six-pointer with a 30 ought 6, so read on. Two haw “trees,” more the size of large shrubs, attached roots at Happy Landing Farm in Boykin, this writer’s boyhood home. These trees, members of the rose family, are among several hundred species named, mainly in Eastern states, and are characterized by long thorns, hence the name “hawthorn.” The fruit of most haw species is a small berry, bright red to yellow-orange when it ripens in late summer. 

One late summer chore during boyhood was picking ripe haw berries amongst thorn-laden branches. Redbirds were more partial to nearby wild cherry tree offerings and pretty much left the haw berries to humans. Another was hiking to a ditch bank at the far end of a cow pasture to gather crabapples, small, sour-tasting green apples not much kinder to the palate than an unripe persimmon. Speaking of thorns, something like this ever happen to you? Spring in an early ’60s year, cousin Hennie and I had picked a quart or so of blackberries, washed them off, added sugar, and were anticipating a real treat, when along came older sister, smiled at cousin, and helped herself to our blackberries. I reckon he was sweeter on his girl cousin than our berries so said nothing. I fumed in silence, not gentlemanly upbringing, but knowing any retort would lessen my chances of later sweet talking her into playing baseball, pickings usually being slim in the country. Well, if you can’t relate to that, you were an only child.

You may have bought or been gifted may-haw, hawthorn or crabapple jelly, usually found in specialty grocery or gift stores. If you once try the real thing, however, all the rest of your jellies, jams and preserves will become relegated to the rear of pantry or fridge, subject to semi-decade cleaning out those repositories.

Back when church bazaars were a way of life in rural South Carolina, haw jelly showed up in the offerings of several ladies at Church of the Ascension’s annual bazaar. Passing through Hagood on the way to an air show in Camden, I scooped up all available, grinning like I had discovered a piece of Edgefield pottery for a few bucks. Upon reaching the car to stow away these tart treasures, I was accosted by a woman, who berated me for buying up all the jelly. Again, not because of gentlemanly upbringing; rather fearful of physical harm, I begrudgingly parted with a $2 jar and went my way, wounded, but not bleeding.

Move the calendar forward a few decades; many of those ladies who “made things out of necessity” no longer do so, or have “gone on.” Many haw trees from then are no more, cut down along ditch banks to make way for center pivot irrigation, lost to old age, or no one can remember exactly where they were. Locations of surviving haw-bearing trees are now carefully guarded secrets. However, you won’t see haw jelly listed among those objects like land based telephones or VCRs doomed to extinction, at least not yet. A couple of years back, a deal was unofficially struck to trade fresh water shrimp for haw jelly, with one of those dear ladies from Boykin with, thank goodness, a palate for prawns. Annually, these few precious pints are brought back home and carefully placed in a corner cupboard, at eye level, nestled among remnants of family china and other bits of porcelain nostalgia. Recently, to my horror, I peeked in the cupboard: “Hon, we’ve been robbed!” I hollered. My dear wife, unhindered by quirks such as mine, quietly replied, “I put them in the cabinet below.”

 (Johnny Roland lives with his wife a couple of miles east of Cameron, next to the Four Holes Swamp. Email him at jcroland3@aol.com.)

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