“Everyone has the talent to some degree: even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you know whether it tastes better to you with raspberry jam or grape jelly; on chewy pumpernickel or white toast.”
Anna Shapiro, ‘A Feast of Words’
i believe it to be a very common experience for continental americans to begin their cognoscente lives eating peanut butter and jelly (or jam) sandwiches. at first, the idea didn’t do much for me. peanut butter was a lot less interesting than ham, turkey, or cheese. or sandwiches that were served on long pieces of bread…really, quite ordinary. this could be a result of my mother’s cultural background having a certain incongruity with american school-lunch-box culture. growing up in a society that ate rice and not bread, and did not serve sweet dishes as a part of a main meal, at first she didn’t grasp the connect that there were different kinds of bread for different purposes. sometimes my peanut butter would come on rye bread. sometimes raisin. but usually i had a peanut butter sandwich on hearty grain and nut breads, with some kind of red jammy thing on it. once i got to the point of preparing my own lunches, i stopped eating peanut butter and jelly all together, and had very little use for jam. i usually topped toast with butter or an egg, and otherwise did not eat jam.
but lately i’ve been craving jam. a college friend of my husband’s taught me how to make jam a couple summers ago. we drove out to a u-pick strawberry field and picked the smallest, darkest strawberries we could find…a several hour process. then we canned strawberry jam all day long, and came up with something pretty fabulous. fresh. juicy. sweet. we couldn’t help baking scones to top with our jam, while we enjoyed a cup of tea together. then later, i tried again, with fresh picked blueberries. for whatever reason, it didn’t turn out quite right and i gave up again for a while.
in between, i sampled boutique and artisan jams from all over. i bought in when i started eating plain greek yogurt for breakfast, topped with frozen fruit and a spoon full of jam. i liked the chunkiness of the fruit with the jam, and something struck me! i was tired of strawberry, black berry, and raspberry jams. i was tired of jams that were smooth and textureless. plus, couldn’t jam be a bit healthier? couldn’t it have less sugar? couldn’t we leave the skin on the fruit? i was ready for something different!
last summer, when my favorite fruit, nectarines, went on sale, i bought several flats. i spent a few days chopping them all up after i let them ripen. and then i froze them, following vintage advice from a 1940’s cookbook instructing me that frozen fruit worked better for jam because of how the freezing/thawing process breaks down the sugars. i also took care to not cut the pieces too small, and not to puree them. then, in the early autumn, i took the fruit and turned it into chunky nectarine marmalade! a jam that was still jam, suitable for using on toast and peanut butter, but still retained some of the texture of the fruit it came from. additionally, the chunks of nectarines look pretty in the jars, and float to the top! i used low or no sugar needed pectin, and saved the jars of jam to give away as gifts to my friends and family.
it was a big success!
i love to make jam, now, because the product is useful, it is pretty, and it is very quantitative! i can immediately see the results of my work, count how many jars i’ve created, and decorate the jars, and give them away to people i care about. it’s consumable, and most people have a use for it! plus it captures the nature of my city’s short summer months, and bottles them up to enjoy during the long, rainy winter. jam is so amazingly versatile as well! i use it on yogurt, to top pancakes, waffles, and peanut butter… of course… i serve it with soft goat cheeses and chevere on baguettes. for tea parties, i move jams from their jars into little bowls to serve with freshly baked scones, and crumpets purchased from the crumpet shop near my city’s large year-round market and waterfront. tea, toast, and home-made jam is the perfect way to start off a week day, and keep the love and homey feeling that comes from a delicious, and hand-made jam.
i suppose one of the main reasons i took up jam making was that a family friend, who used to keep us in jams and jellies all year long, eventually had to move back east to live with her son, as she began to need assistance in her age. when i can jams, i think about this friend, and wonder how she is doing. thought it may seem mundane, and certainly, it is easier and often cheaper to by made jams in the grocery store, it’s a process that connects me to many generations of women. and a process that makes me feel more in control of what i eat, and how i feed my family, and how we support our local economy.
jams i have down pat, but jellies are another thing entirely. my aunt has several asian pear trees on her property, and brought me bags of tiny asian pears. i juiced these and made them into “jelly” but found they didn’t set. instead i market them to friends as “syrup” that can be used to sweeten tea, eat with cheese and bread, top ice cream, and as a glaze for pork. in fact, i will be using several jars as favors at my friend’s upcoming bridal shower! giving away something home-made means so much more to me, friends, and family than something purchased at a store, that was manufactured far away. when i give away a jar of my jam, it’s more than just the cost of a jar, pectin, and fruit. i made it with my hand, and was motivated by the thought of the jam bringing smiles to my loved ones as we all wait out the winter together, ready for another season of fresh fruit and sunshine! my jam contains the thousand little details of my live and love, poured into each jar.