This weekend our family celebrated the end to a glorious summer with what is becoming a family tradition: making jelly. I am bursting with pride for the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and basil that my old Italian farmer husband grows. The harvest excesses, and ridiculous amounts of veggie consumption in our house in August confirm what a modern family of green living that we are. So, by comparison, I am almost embarrassed to admit that my real pride is the jelly.
Grapes grow in our yard as weeds hanging off of the oaks and swamp maples. For years I ignored the almost fake smell reminiscent of grape bubble gum. The birds probably get them all, I surmised. I would not have even considered fighting with the late summer mosquitos to look for grapes until my youngest insisted that we give it a try. Once I saw the huge clumps of Concords, I was hooked. (Ok, not huge, but this isn’t a fishing tail.) I am also the proud steward of my Grandma Markham’s 1951 cook book, which contains her own grape jelly recipe. I searched on the internet for others, but determined that hers was the simplest, and likely then the best. Grapes, water and sugar.
So here’s my conflict- the sugar. Oh, the sugar. Huge quantities of sugar. Shocking bowls full. We had 18 cups of grape juice from our mother-load of grapes this year, so we needed (hold your breath) 24 cups of sugar!! You know those demonstrations that pile up yucky animal fat to show how much is in a particular product? This is what came to mind. The obscene amounts of sugar in this jelly (and the other recipes I reviewed) were daunting. How can I possibly produce something in MY kitchen with that much sugar!
It seems, of late, that sugar has become the-ingredient-that-shall-not-be-named. Verboten. The obesity epidemic and recent recognition of the ocean of high fructose corn syrup in the American food supply have caused many to discuss sugar as public enemy number one. An extension of the carb craze of a few years ago (topic for another blog), sugar is THE evil responsible for all that is bad in our diets. Whew! Well glad that’s all cleared up! But just like politics, we need to have an enemy, and sugar is just this year’s version.
Once I stopped my personal panic over the mounds of snowy sweet going into that pure, thick, rich burgundy juice, I put the sugar in my jelly in perspective. The issue, as always, is in moderation and looking at nutrition from the larger perspective. Sugar is absolutely unnecessary and even dangerous when only calories and energy metabolism are considered. But, as always, taking the narrow view we miss out on where sugar can be placed in a healthy diet. With regard to the jelly, the dark rich juice is very likely packed with antioxidents of many sorts. Similarly, chocolate milk is NOT like soda in that soda offers no other nutrients than sugar, whereas milk offers protein, calcium and vitamin D. This could sound like a big shovel of rationalization, but way I would frame this is context. The nutrients should not be taken out of the context of the whole food.
Moderation is the other key issue to be considered. Jelly, even from those very fresh and nutrient rich grapes, is not very healthy if consumed in large quantities or very frequently. Sugar consumed as “empty calories” – without any context – adds nothing but needless calories. A little bit now and again, especially in the context of a wonderful whole grain toasted bread, is a little added gem, but consumed daily or in the context of nutrient poor white bread with a big glob of butter, does not shine so well. So, if it’s possible to keep sugar as a small, sweet treat in the context of other healthy foods, I say, enjoy! And have fun making it!!