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June 8th, 2012
Scarce native fruit is Texas town’s hidden treat

Mayhaws are small, red berries that are indigenous to the southern United States. Their tartness is a flavor highly desirable in jellies and preserves. PHOTO by JODY HORTON/Texas Folklife.

For Reporting Texas

The 30th annual Hull-Daisetta Mayhaw Festival, recently held in the tiny east Texas town of Daisetta, included a beauty pageant, domino tournament and sporting events. But, not surprisingly, the toughest competition was in the mayhaw jelly contest.

Mayhaws, short for May hawthorn, are small, wild berries that bloom in early May and are indigenous to only a handful of Southern states and found only in limited parts of East Texas. In the Big Thicket and Piney Woods, the fruit is a summer treat steeped in local tradition. But because preparing the delicate ingredient is difficult to master, as well as the fruit’s scarcity and vulnerability to disease, the mayhaw folkway is struggling to survive.

“Growing up, I remember standing in a chair with my mom in the kitchen when she made mayhaw jelly,” said Patti Adkins, the daughter of the festival’s founding president. “We knew how much fun it was going to be to have that wonderful, fresh jelly on biscuits.”

Bill Jackson, owner of Jackson Fruit Farms in Livingston, Texas’ only mayhaw orchard, also remembers his mother’s jelly. “It was a rite of passage to go into the wood, pick the mayhaws, clean them up and make jelly out of them. It was part of my heritage, my way of growing up,” he said.

Robb Walsh, a veteran food writer in Houston and author of “Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook,” said mayhaws are to southerners what crab apples are to New Englanders: too tart to eat from the tree but perfect for sauces and jellies.

Walsh, who called the mayhaw’s flavor “unique and fantastic,” included a mayhaw jelly recipe in his cookbook, an homage to Texas food traditions in danger of disappearing.

Because of funding cuts in university research over the past decade, Jackson said, Texas and Louisiana have both lost programs studying mayhaw breeding and disease control.

Jackson said fireblight, an infectious plant disease, claimed a third of his crop this year, leaving him with 400 producing trees. Though he sold his entire 900 gallons of mayhaws, he said he “could have sold twice that many” had he had them.

This may mean travelers will have less opportunity to purchase the homemade jelly from the roadside stands that dot East Texas highways. Jackson said the majority of his customers buy 25 to 50 gallons, then sell their jelly on the side of the road or online, fetching up to $10 a pint. With his mayhaws selling for $9 a gallon, his customers’ investment becomes a potentially lucrative labor of love.

Mayhaws undergo intricate preparation on the journey from tree to jar. Mayhaws are harvested by shaking the trees and catching the fruit in tarps or blankets. The technique inspired Jackson to design a mayhaw harvester that attaches to his tractor. The contraption encircles the trunk with a net, then shakes the tree and catches the berries in a hopper underneath the machine. After that, the berries are air blown to get rid of twigs and the like, then cooled. The entire job takes less than half a day.

“When the fruit comes off the tree, the sugar starts to turn to starch immediately,” Jackson said. “To keep the quality of the berry up, we try to cool them in less than four hours if we can.”

Keeping the mayhaws cold is essential to making good jelly, Jackson said. Frozen berries actually produce more juice than fresh ones, but Walsh said thawing the fruit will turn it brown, so they must be taken directly from the freezer to the pot. Traditionally, mayhaws are boiled down and strained to make a syrup, but Walsh warns against cooking them too long “because to win a jelly contest, it has to be crystal clear with no particulates.” Mushy mayhaws make a cloudy jelly.

Jackson bucks tradition and uses a juicer to make a cold mash of juice and pulp that is much stronger. He adds it to a cake mix, then tops the baked dessert with a powdered sugar and mayhaw syrup icing. Other popular recipes include mayhaw wine, mayhaw butter and Jackson’s recent attempt at mayhaw vinegar.

Walsh, who prefers to dribble mayhaw syrup over ice cream, recently gave Houston seafood restaurant Reef four gallons of the fruit from Jackson’s farm. Reef sous chef Adam Saxenian said the restaurant plans to offer several menu items featuring the berry, including a ceviche dish using a mayhaw gastrique—a sauce of caramelized sugar and wine that generally also includes a fruit—as well as a mayhaw jus to complement a cooked fish dish.

He said that while the Reef chefs are still experimenting, they plan to use the fruit sparingly to avoid running out. The seasonal fruit is a lucky find at farmer’s markets and is impossible to find in supermarkets. Once used up, the berries will not be available again until next year.

Jackson said simple math is the reason mayhaws remain a little-known Southern delicacy.

“The supply is not there,” he said. “If you go into the wild to get them and you come back with 10 gallons a day, you’d be doing good. Commercially, that doesn’t work.”

Still, Jackson doesn’t mind that mayhaw jelly hasn’t made into mainstream markets. “There’s a world of difference in commercially produced jelly and jelly produced individually,” he said. “The real mayhaw jelly—the old-time East Texas mayhaw jelly—is produced one batch at a time.”

More recently, in an attempt to explore the small bright red fruit’s aesthetic possibilities, horticulturists have begun to incorporate the trees into ornamental landscaping. Walsh chuckles at the idea but calls it is an interesting one.

“Mr. Jackson said they could probably grow in Houston, “ he said. “So maybe next year I’ll try to plant some in my yard. You can call them ornamental, but I’ll be eating the mayhaws.”

MARY BASWELL writes for Reporting Texas, an initiative of the University of Texas School of Journalism. The story is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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