Farm story stage play a plum celebration of 20 years of columns – Chicago Tribune

Though I’m not old enough for recollection, my dad talks about the plum trees that used to be part of the orchards at our family farm. The trees were already part of the existing farm when my grandparents purchased our nearly century old homestead in 1928, with my dad being born on the farm the following year.

Many of these same details have been shared with audiences from the stage during my play performances of “Once Upon a Farm: A Family, a Story, a Tradition,” which completes the run at The Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster Sunday afternoon , Sept. 18. It just happens that Sunday also marks would have been the 105th birthday of my dad’s oldest sibling of the nine, my Uncle Joe, who was born in 1917.

Most people are presented with a bouquet of roses when taking bows to celebrate a stage opening run.

I received something even better from a dedicated reader, shipped from her home in Tennessee: homemade plum jelly.

“I am a cookbook collector and I’ve never met a cookbook I didn’t love,” wrote Janice Shelby of Saltillo, Tennessee, a retired teacher after 35 years in the classroom.

“I have all four of your published cookbooks. I so enjoy reading your columns, stories and the recipes. As a young child, I watched my grandmother cook on a wood stove and turn out delicious meals. Today I cook on a Viking oven range and am so grateful to her for teaching me to love cooking and share this love with family around the kitchen table.”

Married 59 years, Janice said her cookbook collection began with a “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook in 1963, which was a wedding shower gift.

“We schoolteachers had very little money in those days and a cookbook became a treasure,” Janice said.

“I just made some plum jelly, and was raised that there should always be some to spare and share, so I am sending you some to congratulate you on your new farm play. I wish I could be there or I wish you would offer a livestream of it for all to enjoy! I also wish you could have met a columnist we so enjoyed in our newspapers down here. Her name is Libby Murphy, who passed too soon, and wrote for The Jackson Sun in Jackson, Tennessee. She published three cookbooks, and they are similar to your wonderful style of writing.”

According to her August 2016 published obituary, Libby Murphy “passed away in her 60s” following a sudden ulcer attack. She is described in the tribute as being devoted to caring for her mother, and as reported in The Jackson Sun, “aimed to showcase Southern living through stories, photos, tablescapes and menus, and over the years she developed a large following from people who respected her taste in entertainment and event planning, recipes and food presentation, and other aspects of Southern life.”

My thanks to Janice for her kind gift, and this nice comparison to a fellow scribe who does sound like a Southern female columnist counterpart. I’ve been enjoying the plum jelly with my parents, as we generously spread this sweet treat on our warm buttered toast. And as a bonus, Janice kindly provided her easy plum jelly recipe to share with readers.

On a personal note, a heartfelt thank you to all of the readers, family, editor pals, friends and neighbors who attended for the performances of “Once Upon a Farm” to help celebrate 20 years of fond family memories and stories shared from stage, such a perfect shared spotlight space for traveling down memory lane with audiences to commemorate the two-decade anniversary of my From the Farm newspaper columns.

Columnist Philip Potempa has published four cookbooks and is the director of marketing at Theater at the Center. He can be reached at or mail your questions: From the Farm, PO Box 68, San Pierre, IN 46374.

Makes 8 half-pint jars of jelly

5 1/2 cups of strained plum juice

6 1/2 cups of sugar

1 box (1.75 ounce) Sure-Jell

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1 tablespoon butter


1. To make plum juice, pit but do not peel, 5 pounds of red plums, and finely chop fruit and place in a large pot with just slightly more than 2 cups of water. Bring to boil, stir and then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow cooked contents to cool slightly and then using a strainer or colander lined with cheese cloth, press cooked contents to gather juice and fruit drippings.

2. Sterilize and prepare canning jars and lids.

3. Add juice to a large cooking pot and stir in pectin, stirring over a high heat. Add sugar and bring jelly to rolling boil, adding butter to reduce any “foaming.”

4. Ladle jelly into sterilized jars, leaving at least 1/4-inch space at the top and affix lids and rings to seal.

5. Process jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes to ensure tight seal.

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