Estero Island Historical Society volunteer Jo Hughes knows a thing or two about sea grape jelly. She's been making it for more than 30 years.
Hughes, who was born in Fort Myers in the early 1930s and moved on the Beach when she was five years old, learned the trade from her mother. She recalls when the family had to evacuate Fort Myers Beach when hurricanes were threatening to make an impact.
"Mother would take along the Ritz crackers, cream cheese, sea grape jelly and bottles of cream soda for my sister and me," said Hughes. "Usually, we stayed up all night just eating because of the noise from the storms."
She also remembers living up in the Tampa area near her mother in the 1970s and Beach resident Fran Santini driving up to visit her and bringing sea grape juice. Jelly making became a regular process soon after.
"After we moved back to the beach in 1982, we started making it more regularly," said Hughes. "I would stand at the stove and stir it with a wooden spoon. She would sit on a stool and tell me when it was jelly. That is when I learned how to really make it."
Now, Jo makes batches of the sweet stuff, pours them into jars and brings them to the Historic Cottage at 161 Bay Rd. to be sold for the Society's fundraising. The cottage, which is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., began supplying sea grape jelly shortly after it opened in 1997, when a board member of the Estero Island Historical Society received a gift from Hughes.
"I started by giving jars to board members. One of them asked me to make a little extra so that we could put it in the cottage and sell it because it is part of the island history," she said. "So, I started making more."
Sea grape trees have been a big part of the history of Fort Myers Beach for many years. Back in the day, it was known that people would pick sea grapes and eat them. Mothers used to scream at their children for tracking squished sea grapes into the house. Even further back, Calusa Indians used to dine on the grapes as well.
Although sea grapes are no longer the most delectable item on the menu for some, making jelly from it is still a sweet Beach tradition.
From August through part of October, sea grape trees around the island bear fruit that ripens from green to red and purplish hues. The tree has a high drought, wind and salt tolerance, and the fruit is produced only on female trees though a male tree must be present for pollination.
Members of the Estero Island Historical Society can be seen picking sea grapes for the jelly maker. Even long-time Beach resident Ted Reckwerdt, who spends his summers up in North Carolina and is a member of the local historical society, got into the act when he was back in town to check on his house after Hurricane Isaac.
"Bless his heart, he really picked some sea grapes," said Hughes. "That Friday, I had 10 grocery-sized bags and ended up with 5-1/2 gallons of juice."
Jo likes to store the juice in water gallons due to their clean interior.
"You can't use a milk jug because of the film that is left inside," she said.
At the time of the interview, she stated she had 3-1/2 jugs of sea grape juice that needed to be made into jelly.
But don't let the amounts fool you. Supplies may be limited when you walk into the Historic Cottage to buy some. If you're lucky, you can purchase a quarter-pint jar for $2.50 or half-pint jar for $4.
Nowadays, Hughes makes a little extra for classes held at the Historic Cottage. She likes to put out the traditional trays of sea grape jelly, cream cheese and Ritz crackers for classes when she instructs students from local summer camps or Florida Gulf Coast University.
"I tell them it's part of the history of the island. That's what we are teaching, history and changes in the environment. We like to give the teachers or the bus driver a free jar of jelly also," she said.
The jelly-making process
Hughes will tell you the right equipment is necessary to make it right.
"Mother had a big enamel dish pan that people used years ago when they didn't have running water. That's what she used to make it in," she said. "You need the biggest burner on the stove at the highest temperature. In 10 minutes, it's jelly. If someone is not using a big pan like ours and it's in a smaller pot, it's got to cook longer. It's difficult to try to tell someone how to do it."
The process of excreting the juices begins with boiling the sea grapes.
"I wash them in water, take out any that I don't want, then I cover them in water and put them on the big burner and boil them for about 45 minutes," she said. "While they are cooking, I take a potato masher and go around the pan to help knock the skin off them. That helps get the juice out."
Hughes then places two or three cups of the juice batter into a bag made of muslin to separate it from the seeds.
"I just keep squeezing and squeezing," she said. "That's the hardest part to get that juice out. With a full pan, you'll sometimes end up with a gallon of juice."
Equal parts juice and sugar is needed to make the sweet concoction. Jo likes to add a tablespoon of lemon juice as well.
"After it starts to boil, I put in a teaspoon of margarine, too. That keeps it from foaming too much," she said. "I learned that from making strawberry jam."
Sea grape jelly wasn't the only kind of gelatin that Jo and her mom made.
"We made guava, huckleberry, strawberry or whatever else we could get our hands on," she said.
Not all of the native sea grape trees on Estero Island are usable.
"This tree right outside the Cottage does not produce. It has grapes on it, but they will dry up and fall off before we ever have a chance to pick any," she said.
When Hurricane Charley passed in 2004, the trees did not produce so there was no sea grape jelly to be made that fall.
"I didn't get to make any jelly after Hurricane Charley. When Tropical Storm Isaac came through, we thought we would lose all the grapes again," said Hughes.
But, alas, the sea grapes did produce this year, and there is some sea grape jelly-or were some- available for sale at the cottage.
But hurry. A month ago, one lady purchased all what the volunteers had in stock at the time.
"She said she wanted to give jars to her neighbors for Christmas. Some of her neighbors are over 90 years old and have never tasted it," said Hughes. "She tried to do it last year, but when she came over, we were out."