NORMAN — Betty Harmon likes the color blue, especially the blue ribbons attached to her grape and blackberry jelly entries in the State Fair of Oklahoma competition.
She entered three of her cooking specialties and got the top prize on two of them.
“I got seventh on my picante sauce,” she said, “but after getting two blue ribbons …” She makes a “throw-away” motion and hardly even wants to talk about seventh place in the state.
The judges don’t give cooks any feedback, but obviously they liked the color and consistency of her jelly.
“It isn’t a taste test. They hold it up to the light and see that it is clear and that it is set at the right consistency,” she said.
She is confident that it would have won if there had been a judging of the taste because the family and friends who have received her jellies as Christmas gifts always attest to the taste.
Her jelly-making adventures began about 30 years ago, and she and husband, Ron, have found that the jars of jelly make great gifts for friends and clients of his insurance business.
Having recently given a jar of each flavor to a friend, “he called to say that he had never had grape jelly that tasted that good,” Ron Harmon said.
Getting the grapes and blackberries at just the right ripeness is a key to her success, she thinks. They purchased the fruit this year from Barley’s Garden Patch on Tecumseh Road, “the most beautiful fruit I have seen,” she said.
Betty sets aside at least two days for the process, the first step being gathering the equipment and supplies that she will need. She starts with new jars and lids every year.
“I don’t reuse the lids because I want to be sure I get a good seal on the jar,” Betty said.
While the jars are reusable, it is necessary to buy several dozen jars each year “because we give most of it away, and I never get the jars back.”
She cooks the fruit and then strains it through a colander producing several gallons of juice, which will translate into dozens of half-pint jars of her jelly.
“Blackberry is always the favorite,” Betty said. “Everyone likes blackberry. I tried peaches once and was not too thrilled with it.”
Even a state award-winning jelly maker like Harmon occasionally has a goof. One batch of blackberry jelly didn’t set well, “and it was the best tasting syrup over ice cream we had ever tasted.”
She admits that she isn’t a cook who can take a pinch of this or that. She follows a recipe that comes with the pectin she buys.
“I use the directions that come with the Sure Jell, and it is always good,” Betty said.
Ron is at the ready to help her in any way that she needs.
“He is really good at stirring,” she said.
Of her picante sauce, she said, “I know if there had been a taste test, I would have won a blue ribbon on that, too.”
The one disappointment of the state fair competition was that her husband’s entries of his wildlife photography did not garner a ribbon.
“I thought sure he would be the winner, not me,” Betty said.
She is already making plans for next year’s state fair.
“I would like to enter sand plum jelly in the competition,” she said, but sand plums are not readily available. “They grow wild, and I would like to find a place where I could pick them.”
On one such adventure, “there were horses in the pasture, and they like sand plums, too. And you have to be careful picking the plums, as snakes like them, too,” she said.
Her secret to good sand plum jelly is to have most of the plums at red ripeness, “but I want just a few plums that aren’t quite ripe. It adds just a little tartness,” she said.
Her latest kitchen adventure has been to learn how to make peanut brittle. A good friend, retired University of Oklahoma professor Tom Gallagher, used to bring them peanut brittle each year.
“When he quit making peanut brittle, I asked him if he would teach me,” Betty said.
He came to their house and stood beside her at the stove, guiding her through the process “and teaching me how to know when the foam turns just the right color of brown,” Betty said.
Now she will check to see if the state fair has a peanut brittle competition.