May 5, 2020

Mayhaw jelly is sweet nectar of the swamp

            If you look at my hands, the scratches tell a story. It’s not about a cat fight. It’s about a scrap to keep my taste buds tied to 1954. When I think about my introduction to mayhaw jelly, I have to be careful not to drool on my chin.
            Cathead biscuits, mixed in a hand-hewn tupelo bowl on a white enamel table with black trim, were a staple in my grandmother’s Baker County kitchen. As sure as the rooster announced sunrise, there’d be specks of White Lily flour on Nanny’s apron.
            Sitting in a cowhide-bottom chair, I watched her calloused hands caress the ingredients. And then, as if she were adding an extra measure of love, she’d use her knuckles to tamp dimples in the dough. Twenty minutes seemed like 20 years for a 6-year-old, waiting for the oven door to crack open. A dish of yesterday-churned butter and a rose-colored jar of mayhaw jelly were waiting on the counter.
            I grew up in town, on concrete, so I had to ask, “Nanny, what’s mayhaw?” “Honey,” she said, “mayhaws are little red berries that grow in the swamp, and they make the best jelly this side of heaven.”
            Once, she took me on a mayhaw mission. We trudged into a boggy bay on her farm and spread a bed sheet under a thorny tree. We shook the branches and blueberry-sized fruit that resemble tiny crabapples rained down. And if you weren’t careful, your hands and arms looked as though you were a cat-fight survivor.

            Originally, folks thought the tree was a hawthorn. And since the berries are usually harvested in May, that’s why the magic of the “world’s best jelly” is called a mayhaw. (Botanically, mayhaw is one of the hawthorns: genus Crataegus.)
            Three ladies in Miller County put Colquitt, Georgia, on the map, thanks to their enterprise, The Mayhaw Tree. A friend, Betty Jo Toole, one of the founders and wife of the local newspaper publisher, says her family wouldn’t eat any other jelly.
            A few years back—on a Saturday in May—I went on a mayhaw adventure in the Altamaha River swamp. Things haven’t changed much. You still have to tussle with the thorns. And once you’ve emptied the sheet into the bucket, you’re still eons away from slathering butter and spooning jelly on a hot biscuit.
            Selective memory erased the hours of sorting twigs and other trash from the mayhaws. Then there is the washing, boiling, squeezing and straining to yield the precious juice. Jelly-making is another day of standing over a steaming stove.
            There are no shortcuts, but check out the website of the Louisiana Mayhaw Association for tips and recipes. Before you start, however, repeat aloud 10 times: “The greatest rewards follow the greatest efforts.” Otherwise, you are apt to abandon the project and settle for a jar of anything by Smuckers.
            But trust me. The task is sure to tickle your taste buds.
            My grandmother was one of the best cooks who ever toted a milk pail into her kitchen. She declared, “Honey, if the Lord made a finer jelly than mayhaw, He kept it for Himself.”
            That’s why, men, if the lady in your life sacrifices to make you a batch of cathead biscuits and mayhaw jelly, plant your lips on her thorn-tortured hands. When you get up from the breakfast table, slip a $20 bill into the pocket of her flour-dusted apron.
            And if you’re in a shop that sells the sweet nectar of the swamp, don’t look at the price tag. Again, trust me. A warm, buttered mayhaw biscuit is straight from heaven.
            But be careful. You just might drool on your chin.