What God Hath Intended
by Paula Panich
Pectin makes it all possible. Pectin is one of God’s best ideas, purveyed in fruity packages. No question: God intended us to have jellies and jams and marmalade. This is why I take my marmalade straight, by the spoonful.
So my friend Julianna and I decided to make marmalade. We were inspired by a perfect bitter orange marmalade we had eaten in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the delivery, by my friend and Los Angeles neighbor Léo, of a recipe for kumquat marmalade.
We were also inspired by this truth of communal cooking: It lightens the spirit. “It suffereth not the heart to be burnt,” as my seventeenth-century friend the Countess of Kent would have said. My heart, as it happened, was burning.
Shared labor with beautiful fruit, sugar, sharp knives, good conversation, and a big solid pot put to the fire—the citrus fragrance alone was a tonic.
Marmalade in our day seems to carry its own definition, which is a conserve of oranges. That’s what most of us think of when we think of marmalade, if we think of it at all. In fact, in Europe until the eighteenth century, the word marmalade, when used by itself, according to the British food historian C. Anne Wilson, meant only one thing: a marmalade of quinces.
The word for “quince,” in Portuguese, is marmelo.
But nothing is simple with the human heart, nor is it easy to untangle the means and the meaning of what looks to be an uncomplicated mix of sugar and fruit in a small glass jar. Human relationships with food, like our relationships with one another, are a complex and passionate matter, and involve politics, religion, and invasion.
Homemade preserves were known in Roman times; Greek physicians were convinced of the efficacy of quince to aid digestion; Dioscordes recommended it for dysentery and complaints of the liver and kidneys. His recipe for kudonites, made with quince, pops up in Tudor and Stuart times as “quidony of quinces,” and wouldn’t you, just once, love to attend a dinner party at which someone asked for this and it was brought forth?
It would be awhile, though, until marmalade was used to break the nighttime fast.
Marmalade of quinces was prepared dry, and cut, as you would a pie, with a knife, thanks to the discovery that cooked fruit combined with sugar (honey) and acid (vinegar) would result in a solid, thick, leathery, and delicious substance.
You can buy the offspring of this idea in quince paste from Spain, membrillo, sold in gourmet shops, to be eaten with cheese.
Now where was I? Yes, looking for a bridge to take us from quince to orange marmalade. Without Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade (1985, 1999), I might still be standing on a riverbank looking first to an island and then to the shore beyond, with no idea how to cross.
The first bridge is the apple; the second is a moving force we might call the conquering Arabs and the resulting Crusades.
The apple’s gift was its suitability for making jelly. (Many are the early recipes for “jelly of pippins”—pippin meaning for a few centuries any apple grown from a seed.) The pectin content of apples is highest when they are newly picked, in autumn.
The Crusades caused many hearts to suffer, both Arab and European, but left behind, in southern Europe, orange and lemon trees and the knowledge of how to make them flourish by means of irrigation.
Wilson surmises that if apples were put by to make jellies later in the year, intrepid magicians of the kitchen discovered that the addition of lemon juice would push along the jelling and that a bit of orange “pill” (peel) made it more interesting.
Here is a recipe from A True Gentlewoman’s Delight (1653), my own Countess’s cookery book, at least the one published under her name. (I’m obsessed with this cookbook!)
Take Pippins and pare them and quarter them, and coar them, lay them in water. And when you set them on the fire, shift them in another water, and put them in a skillet, and put as much water as will cover them and a little more, set them over the fire, and make them boil as fast as you can, when the Apples are soft, and the liquor tastes strong of the Apples, then take them off, and strain them through a piece of canvas gently; take to a pound of juice a pound of Sugar, then set in on the fire, and when it is boiled up then scum it, and make it boil as fast as you can, and when it is almost boiled, put in the juice of three Lemons strained through a cloth, and if you will have Orange pill pare it thin, that the white be not seen, and then lay it in water all night, then boil them in the water till the pill be soft, then cut them in long pieces, then put it into the sirrupe and shift it about and fill your glasses, and let it stand till it be cold, and then it is ready to it.
Julianna and I, at least on that day, had misplaced our faith in God and her pectin packaged in citrus fruit. We winged it a bit. But what we did wrapped us right into the feverish activities in the kitchens of the Countess four hundred years earlier, though with the reliable and consistent delivery of fire by my Viking stove. We, too, were boiling as fast as we could.
In our cookbooks and online, Julianna and I looked at many recipes urging a twelve- or twenty-hour “curing.” That’s when if you put seeds and pith into a cheesecloth bag, natural pectin will come forth and fulfill its proper function: that is, to provide just the right amount of thickening. We didn’t wait long enough in the cooking, however, curing or not curing, and foolishly lost faith in the natural process.
We used commercial pectin. We used commercial pectin and made the dry marmalade of the Middle Ages. It took a bit of work to excavate it from our pretty jars once it stood until cold—in our case, in the refrigerator.
But we loved our marmalade. We used mostly rangpur limes, Citrus x limonia, a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon: very, very bitter, and not a lime at all. We used a great deal of sugar. Our marmalade was good to eat from the spoon, but its texture was not to everyone’s taste. It defied the expected.
Apparently John Lennon loved marmalade. And if I could easily get it, I would eat daily Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, the thick-cut version, which Captain Robert Scott took on his fatal trip to the Antarctic a century ago and Edmund Hillary toted in his pack to his icy death on Everest. They found momentary comfort in those jars. I’m sure of it.
Julianna and I had a jolly time, and later drank good white wine and ate delicious hearty Greek dishes brought in from a restaurant. Making marmalade with a beloved friend kept sorrow at bay, for, as my Countess says, it isn’t right for “melancholy or flegm to have dominion above Nature.” And what is melancholy except “flegm” of the heart?
My essay, “What God Hath Intended,” is part of an unpublished collection of personal essays entitled The Cook, the Landlord, the Countess and Her Lover. The subjects and themes of this book make up my primary concerns as a person and a writer — food, shelter, landscape, history, and of course, love.
My work as a professional writer was born the same year as my daughter, 1984. Some of this work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Gastronomica, the Harvard Review, the North American Review, and other publications. I have written books, one of which is about nonfiction writing: Cultivating Words (Tryphon Press, 2005).
I’ve taught writing in many places, a great joy to me because I learn far more than I could possibly teach.
I have lived in Los Angeles with my family for nine years. In my north-listing 1921 garage in the middle of the city, I am a printmaker by avocation. I can see daylight through its peeling old boards.