A Southerner's Revenge on Unloveable Kudzu

Southerners rue, curse and unhappily abide kudzu, but few of them ever eat it.

The Internet's awash in recipes for steamed kudzu leaves and powdered kudzu root starch, yet most folks who live where the Japanese vine's transformed once-recognizable landscapes into undulating humps of green would no sooner cook up a mess of kudzu than take their tea unsweetened.

Kudzu's considered -- at best -- a goat snack in the Southeastern United States, where the plant was introduced in the 1930s as a means of erosion control. Barbara Hyman, a Dallas resident who grew up in the central Mississippi town of Lexington, never met anyone who'd sampled it.

But the idea of "kudzu jelly" lodged in her brain a few years back, and she mentioned the concept to her sister Gina. Gina's hairdresser had a recipe, so the women began collecting kudzu blossoms, a chiggery task complicated by the purple blossoms' tendency to clump behind the vine's broad leaves.

"The best way to find them is to roll down your window on a small road, and you can smell the fragrance of perfumed grape," Hyman says. "You don't see it."

It takes almost a cup of blossoms to make a jar of jelly; Hyman went home with about four cup's worth. She then rinsed the flowers, put them in a pot and poured boiling water over them.

"It turns an ugly, yucky gray, and then you let it sit overnight so it can infuse," Hyman explains.

The next day, Hyman strained the kudzu water and added lemon juice, pectin and sugar, the final step in a nearly presto-recipe. The jelly set as promised into a pretty, magenta-hued mass that tasted of honeysuckles and lilacs. It's flagrantly sweet. "I tried to make it low-sugar, but it didn't work out," Hyman says.

Still, the full-sugar jelly's pretty delicious.

"It was so unusual, I decided maybe I should enter it in the State Fair," Hyman recalls (although she can't remember the exact year.)

Hyman toted her jars of jelly to the fair, where she found other women dragging wagons stocked with dozens of entries and an official who didn't know quite how to classify her submission. Kudzu was clearly not a strawberry or an apple or a grape.

"I said, 'It's all over the South'," Hyman says. "She said, 'Well, that's tropical'."

Hyman won the blue ribbon in the tropical category. While she hasn't entered the jelly in any more contests, she still makes it annually. She and her husband, Robert, spread it on toast and drizzle it on yogurt. This year, she offered to serve it at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, but was told the organization planned to serve pho rather than biscuits for breakfast.

Hyman surmises kudzu jelly might be as foreign as pho to some of the conference attendees.

"No one I've ever shared it with has ever heard of it," she says, laughing. "I must travel in very small circles."

If kudzu jelly became wildly popular, its production could help Southerners feel differently about the smothering scourge. But Hyman would need the help of an army of blossom pickers in late summer, when the vine blooms.

"I'm not going to be able to make enough jelly myself to make any difference," she says with the familiar resignation of a kudzu-weary Mississippian.

(Here's one of several recipes for kudzu jelly available on the Internet.)

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