Jalapeño Jelly

Lacy M. Johnson
BG-Essay-by-Lacy-Johnson2 copy 
Now that the holidays are approaching, the days are turning cooler here in Houston, which means it’s time to begin saying goodbye to the jalapeño bushes in my garden. Earlier this year, on Mother’s Day, we planted a few small bushes, which have supplied my family with fresh jalapeños all season. In June, I was chopping handfuls of jalapeños into guacamole. In early July, I was slicing stout jalapeños onto giant cheeseburgers. And now that the bushes are offering their last fruit, I’ve started making jelly. 
That’s right: Jalapeño jelly.
When I got the idea, years ago, that I wanted to make try making jelly, the Jalapeño Jelly recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving was the first one I tried. The recipe calls for exactly twelve jalapeños, two cups of cider vinegar, six cups of sugar, two packets of pectin, and an undisclosed optional amount of green food coloring. For my very first batch I followed Ball’s instructions to the letter. Or, at least I thought I followed them to the letter. Probably I did not, since the jelly was a complete disaster: too sloshy, too mild, too green.
Over the years, I’ve tinkered and toyed with the Ball recipe — sometimes adding more jalapeños, sometimes more sugar or vinegar — and now have it down to a science. I’ve learned to slice the piles and piles of jalapeños longways, flicking out the seeds with the point of my knife. I have learned to wear gloves to avoid capsaicin burns and to wear protective eyewear, since I have experienced no pain quite like that of jalapeño juice droplets in my eye. 
And what do I do with this spicy, dangerous, jelly?

I give the jelly away. 
I give the jelly away for housewarmings, as thank yous, as birthday or christmas gifts. I give the jelly to my husband, my parents, their spouses, my sisters, their spouses, my grandparents, and the friends in my life I have made family. At first, this strange gift was met with a questioning smile, my loved one forcing enthusiasm to save my feelings: Oh yay. Jelly! But over the years, those who are closest to me have learned two things: 1) jalapeño jelly makes a delicious glaze for roasted chicken, or with crackers, smoked meats and stinky cheeses, and 2) making things is how I show my love.
I learned this from my mom, who didn’t make jelly — she didn’t really cook at all, for that matter — but she was always making things for my sisters and me with her hands. She made clothes for us as children, even though we could afford to buy clothes from the store. She made dolls for us to dress and push around in tiny strollers. She made quilts for our beds, curtains for our rooms, rugs and stained glass lampshades. And when I grew older and moved away from home, after I married and had children of my own, my mom spent months during each of my pregnancies knitting blankets for my unborn children. 
I didn’t recognize the significance of this until my second child was nearly due. My sisters had kindly offered to throw me a baby shower, and after I had sat for hours unwrapping package after package of onesies and bottles, breast pumps and bouncy chairs, forcing enthusiasm to save everyone’s feelings, my mom delivered a giant package into my arms. I opened the package to find three knitted blankets, each in a different color, each in a different pattern, a different size, each for a different occasion. 
I burst into tears. 
My mother’s an excellent knitter—excellent at making, really: not only blankets and quilts and lampshades, but also furniture and jewelry and paintings. She makes tiny, intricate bears out of mohair and sells them on eBay to collectors all over the world. She makes baskets out of wicker she dries herself. She makes butterflies and fairy wings out of felted wool or wax paper. No matter the form she chooses, her art has no error. 
Once, when I was much younger, when my mom was teaching me to knit for the first time, I remember her telling me the importance of checking my work, of fixing every mistake as soon as I noticed it. At the time I thought it was silly: What’s the big deal? Who’s gonna notice one flubbed corner, one tiny slipped stitch? I was eighteen then, still wild and reckless, and hadn’t yet learned how badly I would want to go back to fix my mistakes — especially those that seemed like little ones at the time.
So when I opened the package she handed me at the baby shower, as the perfect blankets fell in perfect folds onto my lap, I finally realized what she’d been trying to offer me all along. Not just a warm blanket to pull over me, not only the many skeins of yarn that had passed through her cool fingers over many hours, over many months — knitted and purled, knitted and purled, over and over. The blankets were perfect in a way no love between two people ever can be. 
In life, I have made mistakes. But when I make jelly, I do not. I know exactly how much sugar and fruit, pectin and lemon juice to add to the pot. I know exactly how quickly to stir the mixture as it boils, and exactly the kind of focused, perfect care it needs. 
 I give away the perfect jelly, in perfect jars, wrapped in perfect paper to those who matter most to me. And when they open the jars, the bits of jalapeño suspended in the perfect shimmering jelly, I can’t help watching them eat. There’s that first tentative bite: the crunch of the cracker, the tang of the cheese, then a sweetness that heats the lips and teeth and tongue. What I’m watching for is a tiny flicker of recognition: a perfect thing that lingers long after the sweetness is gone.


Lacy M. Johnson is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.