Kate Montgomery growing, canning joy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kate Montgomery’s children would say, “That’s not jelly,” when she brought jars of it home from the store.

“So I started keeping homemade jelly for the kids,” she said.

What began years ago as something to please her three sons — Chris, Steve and Roy — has turned into a pleasant pastime and a lot of people prefer Kate’s brands to the store-bought varieties.

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You’ll find her, along with husband Walter at a booth each Saturday morning at the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market where she has an assortment of jams, jellies and some vegetables, most homegrown and all home-processed in Kate’s kitchen.

She buys a few items, such as plums and peaches, but the other products come from her garden or the gardens of friends and family. She grows cucumbers, squash, peppers, okra and tomatoes, and there’s a fig tree in her backyard that’s as big as some houses. She climbs a ladder to pick most of those, “and the birds can have those I can’t reach.”

Kate grew up at Oak Grove, La., and Walter at Lorman in Jefferson County. They met and married 45 years ago when her father was working in Port Gibson with a paving company.

Being one of 13 children, Kate said when growing up, “You had to put up food to survive. You had that food when there was nothing else to eat.” Her mother basically canned essentials such as peas and tomatoes, and her main instruction to her daughter was to make sure everything was clean in the kitchen.

“She taught me canning, especially how to can tomatoes,” Kate said. “She’d put a teaspoon of salt in the bottom of the jar and a teaspoon of sugar in the top (or vice versa).” Kate has always followed that recipe with the result that, “I do not lose tomatoes.”

This is Kate’s fourth year to be at the Farmers’ Market. When she was approached about having a booth, her reply was, “All I’ve got is jams and jellies,” and she was assured there was a market for them. She bought a tent, already had a table, “and we went from there.”

Some items Kate has always made, but she adds to her list often upon request. Last year when Ron Anderson asked her about candied jalapeños, she found a recipe and recently told him, “See what I’ve got?” They were an instant hit and are among her most popular items, along with pickled okra.

A customer’s request is also why she started making pepper jelly — someone asked for it. Kate looked in her cookbooks for a recipe, found one and began making it. She’d never even tasted it until a few years ago, and said her first batch “didn’t have any kick to it.” So each time she made it, she added peppers until, “Now I’ve got the hotness just about where I want it.”

One of her rules of thumb in cooking is “the simpler the recipe, the better the quality. Don’t put five or six different things in there — that’s not going to work.”

Not everything she has tried has been a success. Her biggest booboo, she said, was when she put up several jars of peaches, and the leftovers that had some peelings on them ought to make good jelly by just adding more peaches — or so she thought. It didn’t jell, but “that was some of the best syrup.”

On each jar is an attractive label with nutritional facts, and the colors of the contents, especially the tomatoes, are a variety of pretty hues. Kate cans a few things in quarts but mostly uses pints and half-pints but never “the cute little jars.” There’s not much in those, she said, “and I’d feel guilty selling them. I like something that is useful, that will last people a week.”

Each Saturday Kate takes about a dozen of every item she processes. She’s run out of a few things, but she’s never sold out completely. People often tell her how much they enjoy her products — and she’s never had a complaint.

When she and Walter come home from the market, it’s time to start over, to replenish the stock. She’ll work in the kitchen awhile, watch TV “and mostly nap.” Though it’s work, she thinks of it also as therapy “because I’m in there being quiet, making jelly, not bothering anybody.” It’s also a time to reflect, to connect with friends, because one of her favorite utensils is a big, old dishpan Brownie Davis gave her. She always pulls out that pan when she’s slicing cucumbers or other vegetables.

Kate’s kitchen talents aren’t limited to jams and jellies and such — she also makes candy and cookies but mostly for family. She’s been known to send care packages to her children.

The Vicksburg Farmers’ Market is a summer event, but Kate has regular customers — and new ones — who call in orders all year. One very special customer who often comes to her door always has a spoon in his hand — and he just wants a taste of jelly. He’s only 3 years old!

She’s obviously a people-person, for Kate loves the atmosphere at the market: “So many nice people. I’ve made so many friends. My booth is next to the Boyds from the Edwards-Bolton area, and their children remind me of my own brothers and sisters when I was that age. It’s like an old-timey county fair.”

She works most days in the sales shop at the Vicksburg National Military Park, so she doesn’t go to the market on Wednesdays.

Now she’s doing a lot more canning than she used to, “and I can’t imagine getting tired of it. I can’t imagine not doing it. I’m loving every minute of it.”

It’s obvious her customers do, too.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.