Becoming the next caretaker of our family tradition feels distinctly Southern. Not for the act of caretaking, per se, but for what the tradition entails: sharing the flavor of my South, a flavor so heavenly it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. And here they come, on cue, as I set down these words.
To taste Nai Nai’s Apple Spice jam is to touch the divine. Based on an old South Carolina recipe, it starts with five pounds of raw apples. “That’s the ideal amount,” noted my father, the first to take up the mantle from Nai Nai, his mother, Eliza Neville Lancaster. In the detailed recipe he sent he also suggested the York. Said other varieties could turn to mush. Like apple sauce. But I have yet to find one that does. I’ve worked with Crispin, McIntosh, Fuji and they all hold their shape. I prefer Granny Smith’s for their tartness.
Peeling’s next, and it’s a job that can’t be rushed. For me it’s a chance for calm contemplation. Sharp knife, smooth skin, round and round and round. Again and again. Deep in it, my thoughts always turn to Nai Nai. Did she strive to make one continuous peel? Did she ever cut herself? Were some batches tinged with her own blood?
Wouldn’t be surprised. Nai Nai – grandmother in Mandarin – was one strong and courageous Southern woman. Born in Kentucky in 1892, she moved to Clinton, South Carolina in 1904 when her father became President of Presbyterian College. Presbyterian blood flowed thick in her veins, propelling her to China as a missionary. When she was 26. And single. Didn’t get married until two years later to another missionary she met there. He was tough too.
They spent over thirty years in China, through a violent period filled with lawlessness, banditry, Communist insurgency, Nationalist tyranny, and Japanese invasions. And of course the world war. In 1927, while living in Nanking, she was forced by gunpoint from her home when the Communists invaded the city. Pregnant with my dad, she escaped on a US gunship, his two older sisters in tow. My grandad, determined to ride it out, stayed behind, only to witness their house get looted, then torched. He was saved by their brave cook who hid him in his home.
I wonder about that cook. Did Nai Nai ever share the recipe with him?
Once peeled, slice the apples into quarters and cut out their seeded cores. As you go, toss each just-quartered piece into a bowl of cold water, ensuring they stay fresh ‘til the next step. Not sure if discoloration affects the flavor but why take the risk. And to further minimize browning, I complete the full preparation process using half the number of apples, then start peeling the other half.
What you need next is a large cooking pot. And a cheese grater with horizontal cutters. These are sharp enough for apples but too dull for human flesh. Hold the grater over the pot then draw the quartered pieces lengthwise across a slot, creating long, thin slices. Once you finish the first batch, spread the slices evenly in the pot and cover in two pounds of sugar.
Yeah, you read that right. The recipe calls for equal measurement – the same weight in sugar and apples. It isn’t scientific, though. And it doesn’t have to be precise. It’s a guess five pounds of apples becomes four by the time you’ve sliced. It’s worked for me so far.
Pile the next batch of slices atop the first and cover with two more pounds of sugar. Takes about an hour up to this point but good news, you’re done for the day, as the concoction needs to sit for twenty-four hours.
In the interim I reflect more on Nai Nai. Not so much her words but her being. Frankly can’t remember talking much with her when we visited Clinton, South Carolina where she and grandpa returned upon leaving China for good. Well before her passing at the age of 97 her hearing had gone. Though it didn’t bother her a bit, actually she seemed pleased for the silence, it rendered conversation difficult. Besides, at my young age I had no clue how to connect. Her past was not something shared within the family. She never spoke of it, and neither did Dad. We weren’t storytellers, especially about ourselves, perhaps from over consciously equating it to self-promotion. Or worse, bragging.
But her mere presence commanded a dignified calm as she sat in a rocking chair in her apartment, quietly knitting, her silver-white hair sculpted into a tight bun on the top of her head. I saw her just once with her hair down. The gossamer-like tresses reached her waist, changing her appearance entirely. She turned at my startled reaction and for a second seemed startled too. Or maybe that was my imagination. I was dumbstruck enough for the two of us, feeling as if I’d encroached upon a private domain.
You may feel a similar dissonance when opening the pot lid twenty-four hours later. No dry sugar crystals in view. Just crisp, white slices floating above a buoyant, aromatic syrup, ready for the final steps.
Give the contents a stir and place the pot on the stove. Bring to a boil and then simmer for twenty to twenty-five minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Again, it’s not precise. But you’ll know when it’s done; the slices will exhibit a luscious translucence.
Now throw in two tablespoons of cloves and an equal amount of cinnamon. Nai Nai and Dad used crushed cinnamon sticks but I’ve never enjoyed dealing with the bits and pieces upon consumption. So I use a tablespoon of powdered cinnamon. And two cinnamon sticks broken into thirds, the remains of which I remove when filling the fourteen-ounce jars. Keep the cloves in. They continue to add flavor in the jar and can be simply removed later.
Stir for three minutes. Then turn off the heat.
Before filling the four or so jars you’ll need, make sure they, the lids, and any serving implements are sterilized in boiling water. Takes five minutes, and easily done the morning of the second day. When those jars are clinking in the boiling water I think of Dad. He passed away soon after sending me the recipe. One particular trip comes to mind, when he was in his late eighties, the two of us touring bourbon distilleries across Kentucky. Getting him to talk about his past, though, was like pulling teeth. Reticent like his mother ‘til the end.
I forgot to ask him for the list of apple spice recipients before he died. Prepared in autumn, he sent wrapped jars for Christmas to those deemed worthy. This was his broadening of Nai Nai’s tradition, expanding the reach beyond holiday visitors to her home, of which she had many. It’d be a short list though. Beyond my siblings, most will have probably passed, his generation of friends and family pretty much all gone.
But I know at least one friend on his list. Someone I first got to know while growing up in Japan. Another missionary, aged 96, yet physically fit and mentally sharp. Last year I sent her a jar at her son’s suggestion and she thanked me with a heartfelt two-page handwritten mailed letter. It dripped with love, expressing a profound appreciation for my continuing the tradition. She adored the jam, not just for the taste, but for the warm memories it triggered, and was left bereft several years ago when Dad, in failing health, stopped sending them.
I sent her another jar this Christmas and her son tells me she’s already composing a thank-you letter.
About the Author
George Lancaster was raised in Japan, lived thirty years in America’s South, and since 2008 has embraced Australian citizenship. Married for umpteen years to Sydney-born Nicole and father to two adult children (who share features of his, so he reckons Nicky’s been telling the truth!). A hobby writer for years, he is finally getting paid as a freelancer.