Wild berries make the best preserves

Nobie Ownby stands on a platform near the back of the jelly shop, whipping a big paddle around in her steaming cauldron, harmonizing happily and with plenty of volume, with her daughter-in-law Libbie.

Their Smoky Mountain Farm jellies and preserves, a rainbow of delectables lined across the big window, attract tourists like so many bright magnets to the shop in the Gatlinburg Craft Center.

Today they have a "run" in each pot: blackberry preserves in one, honey jelly in the other. The aroma is heavenly.

I'm reading the labels on the old-fashioned jars with the wires across the tops, and on the newfangled ones with the screw-top lids. Cherry preserves, pumpkin butter, sweet potato butter, wild strawberry preserves, black walnut conserve, pecan conserve, corn cob jelly . . . .

"Corn cob jelly? You've got to be kidding!"

"No, not at all. You cook the corn cobs, you strain the juice, and then you add sugar and pectin. You have to add pectin, or it won't jell. "You'd be surprised what people say it tastes like. Some say like a berry, some say a fruit. I think it tastes a little like apple. You go over to the sample table, and tell me what you think it tastes like."

I taste it and it tastes like apple jelly to me.

"Tell me about that pepper jelly, Nobie."

"Now that is somethin' real nice, on cheese or meat, or anytime you'd like a nice relish, because I use the same things I use in relish . . . peppers and onions and vinegar. I use red pepper in the hot jelly, green pepper in both.

"For the hot pepper jelly I strain the vegetables out, after I cook them real good. You still have to use pectin and sugar, by the way. I leave the onions and green peppers in my mild pepper jelly, to give it a little crunch. They'll both bite your tongue."

From customers around the country she hears about her pepper jellies. One New York newspapers writer calls it just the thing for jaded palates.

"People use it to make hors d'oeuvres.They mix it with cream cheese and serve it on little round crackers.

As Nobie got into making jelly in huge quantities, she learned something interesting: All sugars are not alike in sweetness.

"I found that certain brands had to be used in larger amounts. And when you use as much as I do, you can't always stay with the same brand all the time, so I had to learn to use more of the weaker brands."

She uses about 300 pounds of sugar a day when she's just making jelly. When she's conjuring up preserves, she uses 60 pounds a day, because she can't make as much at a time.

Nobie's personal favorites are the berry preserves. "The tart, wild berries. We don't have many tame berries around here, and the wild make a much richer preserve."

Smoky Mountain Farm jellies are shipped everywhere, most of them. "We don't fool with mailing everything we have, but there's a price list people can send for. Just tell them to write to Smoky Mountain Farm, Highway 73, Box 92, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37738, and we'll send them one."

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