Of Woods and Words: The Joy of Jam

According to Ada, homemade jam has magical qualities
According to Ada, homemade jam has magical qualities

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Recently, whenever a friend calls to check in, it always seems I’m in the middle of canning something. I was given a water bath canner for Christmas last year and since the blueberries ripened back in July, the canner’s been getting a weekly, if not more frequent, workout. “Can I put you down for a minute?” I ask my friends when they call. “I need to go turn down the canner.” Through the long distance phone line, I can almost hear them rolling their eyes, although I suspect that if they saw my pantry with its shelves neatly lined with an assortment of jams, salsas, sauces, and sauerkraut, they might give this latest hobby of mine a little more credence.

While home canning sounds terribly old-fashioned, in truth, it’s a practice that’s not nearly as old as the hills. The process was first introduced in the early 19th century, then really took off half a century later with the pioneers out on the prairie. After heightened popularity during the Great Depression, home canning faced a sharp decline in popularity in the post-World War II days, when women headed off to work and convenience food became the norm. Now, in the midst of the “Great Recession,” it’s no wonder home canning is making a comeback. It’s a way to save some money, if not time, and it helps us reclaim a true connection to the food we eat at a time when many Americans feel a little muddled about their priorities.

Besides, homemade jam has magical qualities. An acquaintance says her children consider themselves abused if they don’t have her homemade jam on their shelves. As another northwoods child who always had a wide selection of homemade preserves to choose from, I too turn my nose up at store-bought jam. It’s snobby, I know.

In college, when I studied abroad, I had a housemate who only liked strawberry jam. For months, my other housemates and I obliged her by only buying strawberry jam. We were in Ireland, the land of really bad peanut butter, and our PB & J sandwiches were sad affairs until my mom sent over a jar of raspberry jam. Suddenly our jam sandwiches tasted of comfort and home. The jam was practically inhaled.

Now that I make my own jam, I’ve noticed that when you home can, you’re inducted into a special cult of people, the kind who exclaim over berries’ plumpness and who have something close to rapture in their voices when they describe the jam flavor combinations they’ve concocted. “Peach/nectarine/banana,” they gush, “Now that you must try.” At its essence, jam is just fruit and sugar with a little bit of pectin stirred in, but it seems you get a lot more than ingredients under the seal when you can a batch of jam. Stirred in with all that sugar is the taste of summer sunshine along with a healthy dose of love.

When you consider the relative simplicity of jam, it seems like perhaps it’s given a disproportionate amount of reverence. But jam’s an investment in time. Both gathering the fruit and preparing the jam can be lengthy endeavors. Each batch of jam speaks of a willingness to stand in front of at least three steaming pots on the range during some of the summer’s warmest weather. We value homemade jam because we ourselves give it value. And besides, no matter what the time of day, homemade jam slathered across a piece of toast is comfort food at its finest; one that’s worth setting the phone down for, if only for a minute.

Airdate: October 5, 2011

Photo courtesy of Pinot & Dita via Flickr.

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