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I was in the midst of a good old-fashioned clean-out of the kitchen cupboards when I found an odd stash that made me pause with a bittersweet smile. Four beautiful half-pint jars full of homemade jelly, dark and glistening as Northern Ontario amethyst. I sighed. It was time to rinse that jelly down the drain.

How about I tell you the whole story.

Six summers ago, our family was on holiday visiting my parents. It was the last visit that we would have with them at their home on the rural property where I grew up, but at the time we didn’t know that.

On one of our last days there, my mom and I decided to take a wander through the field and woods. We came upon a grove of healthy bushes laden with shiny purple-black berries. Black currants! What a find! We went straight back to the house and returned with buckets. The day was now burdened with glorious purpose – we were going to make jelly.

We picked and chatted. Black currants are bitter on their own, so we weren’t snacking. We got home with enough for a full batch of jelly, and thankfully Mom had some jars at the ready. We faithfully followed the recipe on the Certo pectin sheet. Just before we were about to pour it into the jars, I gave in to temptation and dipped a spoon in for a taste. “Whoa, Mom,” I sputtered. “Is it supposed to be this bitter?”

Mom tasted it and made a face. “Oooo. Did we count enough cups of sugar?” We had. But we decided to add more. Tasted again. Added more sugar. Tasted again. Added all the rest of the sugar that Mom had. How was it still that bitter? We decided to process the jars anyway. “Maybe it just needs to have time for the flavours to meld. . ?” said Mom. Maybe. . .

With the jars cooling, we crossed the little bridge over the creek to go visit my Grandma. Although it had been a long time since she had been in the forest or even the field, Grandma was a legendary berry forager in her younger years, and I was eager to tell her about our labours and successes. Before I even got to brag about the jelly-making, Grandma’s brow furrowed. “Black currants? I’ve never seen black currants in those woods,” she mused. “What did the bushes look like?”

We described the bushes and their berries. “Oh, no, no. Those aren’t black currants,” she said immediately. Mom and I exchanged a look.

“Do you know what they’re called?” Mom asked her.

Well. . . I don’t know what their proper name is, but when we were growing up we always called them poison-berries.”

Eyes wide, Mom mouthed, DON’T TELL HER ABOUT THE JELLY. We were both trying to stifle giggles. We had spent all day and all of Mom’s sugar making poison jelly.

Back at my parents’ house, we did some frantic googling to see if the internet could help us identify the berries. Grandma was right: the berries were definitely not black currants, but it wasn’t completely clear exactly what they were. We had some good laughs about the whole escapade, but we weren’t courageous enough for another taste-test.

And yet, the next day as I was packing for the return trip to Kingston, when Mom asked, “What should we do about all this jelly?” I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. I wrapped the jars in bubble wrap and stowed them in a suitcase. I brought that jelly with me all the way across the province and put it at the back of the top shelf of one of our pantry cupboards.

Six years later, as I washed the unidentified, probably-poisonous jelly down the drain of the kitchen sink, I had lots of swirling thoughts. Why had I kept it all these years? It wasn’t so that someone could eat it. Although I appreciated the memories that were connected to that poison-berry jelly, the jelly itself was taking up space, and admittedly could cause someone harm.

Rather than link this story directly to another specific thought-pathway, I’m just going to leave the jar open for you.

There are metaphors to be made here, and I’m sure you have your own that come to mind. What are the poisonous things that we hold onto because of tradition, relationship, maybe even out of stubbornness because we worked so hard, with the very best of intentions, to make them?

Mom and I didn’t mean to make poisonous jelly, but we did. I dragged it home with me and held onto it for years out of sheer sentimentality. I’ve learned quite a bit since then about foraging and plant identification, but making better choices moving forward was just part of what I needed to do –- I also needed to free up that space and get rid of the poison. And now I have.

Bittersweet indeed.

Kathryn Vilela

Kathryn Vilela lives in Kingston, Ontario, and is an enthusiastic amateur in many areas, including writing, theology, art, singing, Portuguese cooking, and being a mom. Kathryn is happiest when she’s in the middle of a good book, a good conversation, or a good hike through the forest.


  • RZ says:

    You are wise to leave the application to each of us. We are much more likely to be honest with ourselves.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Delightful recounting of good memories. There are some poisonous things that can never be made sweet no matter our efforts.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    This reminds me of an experience my husband had as an agronomist. A customer’s wife made a pie with berries she found, but they wanted to be sure they were edible. When they described the source, he told them it was black nightshade, not the edible kind. “Can it kill you?” they asked. He replied, “No, but you’ll wish you were dead.”

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