Three Pratt area women are skilled sand plum jelly makers. They share some of their traditional secrets.
There were not very many sand plums to pick in around Pratt this summer due to some untimely freezes, but that hasn't stopped local jelly makers from pursuing their craft. Just don't ask for their secrets, or where they have found their sand plums, because those are well-guarded secrets.
"My late husband grew up in this area so he knew all the good places to pick," Eva Ohley said. "We have always loved sand plum jelly, so it was worth getting into the thorns and the chiggers to pick the plums."
Even though she didn't pick any plums this year, some of Ohley's friends somehow got their special gifts of that pure rosy red-orange jelly anyway.
"She pulled some plums out of her freezer and made this," said Louise Schnittker. "It's my only jar and I'm not sharing."
With sand plums selling for $12.50 per gallon bag at a recent Farmer's Market in Pratt, Ohley's freezer stash might just be the best-kept secret yet. But she was willing to share her tried and true recipe for making sand plum jelly.
"I've always had really good luck following the recipe on the pamphlet in the box of Sure-Jell," Ohley said. "I wash the plums and take off the stem, the put them in a kettle and ad enough water to cover them and bring it too a boil."
Ohley said she heated the fruit to a rolling boil and then let it simmer for one minute. After that she drained the mixture and strained it in a tea-towel to get a clear juice.
"I like it nice and clean like that," she said. "It makes such a pretty jelly then."
Ohley said she followed the instructions closely by adding 7-1/2 cups sugar to 5-1/2 cups sand plum juice.
"You have to be sure to bring it a boil before adding the sugar," she said. "And stir it constantly for that one minute of that rolling boil so it doesn't burn."
After removing the mixture from the stove top, Ohley skins off the white foam that comes to the top.
"Not everyone does that," she said. "But I just like to keep it pretty."
She then poured it into glass jars, let it cool and finally added a layer of paraffin on the top before securing the lids.
"My mother always did it that way," she said. "We reused a lot of jars and had different sizes. Sometimes the lids didn't quite fit, so it was important to seal it with the paraffin so that mold does not grow on top."
Ohley said once she tried to vary her recipe just a bit and added oleo because it was supposed to be better that way. Unfortunately, her sand plum jelly from that batch developed a green substance between the paraffin and the jelly. She never tried that again, and has used the same tried and true recipe ever since.
Ohley's friends Schnittker and Dorothy Webb treasure her sand plum jelly expertise, as they both grew up making it with their mothers and know how much time and trouble goes into each jar.
"I used to pick sand plums with my grandmother Mary Bateman," Schnittker said. "She made sand plum jelly every year and I often watched her."
Schnittker said her grandmother cooked the berries, then smashed them through a sieve to get the juice out of the pulp, seeds and skins. Then she put it in a towel to wring out more juice. She saved the pulp to make plum butter, similar to apple butter where the moisture is cooked out until a sweet spreadable substance forms. The juice, of course, was made into the traditional sand plum jelly.
"My grandmother made all kinds of fruit jelly and butter," Schnittker said. "It's just what they did back then. We didn't waste anything."
Webb, who happens to know exactly where Ohley's freezer stash of sand plums came from but won't tell, also grew up in a family that picked and preserved the wild Kansas fruit.
"It's a very time-consuming process, but I love doing it," Webb said. "I just made 25 jelly-size jars and I will get a lot of mileage out of these."
Webb, known in the community for her baking skills as well, makes muffins, banana bread, pies and other baked goods, sometimes selling them the local Farmer's Market.
"This jelly will be just the perfect thing to put on top of a slice of banana bread with some softened cream cheese," she said.
Her children and grandchildren always expect her to bring them sand plum jelly when she visits them in Hays, and many of her local friends have been recipients of her jelly.
"I am putting together a basket for a friend's wedding in August," she said. "There will be jars of homemade pickles, dill and sweet, and of course, some sand-plum jelly. That makes it extra special."
While there may not have been many sand plums to pick in the Pratt area this summer, those who have them are keeping up with the tradition of making them into something special. And those who are lucky might get a chance to enjoy a jar or two of sand plum jelly in the future.