This past summer I found myself standing on wet gravel in a ramshackle shelter housing fresh vegetables and a stack of Yoder’s preserves. I was in lush rural West Virginia for the first time visiting a transplanted friend. She picked up a jar of blackberry jam and asked me a question that I didn’t quite know how to answer.
“Do you like jam?”
“Uh…sure.” I guess I didn’t…not like jam. It’s jam. You smear it on bread to make peanut butter taste better. It makes toast go down without sticking. You know, jam. It always tastes like overcooked fruit goo, whether it’s expensive “gourmet” pomegranate ginger jam or grape jelly on sale at the drugstore. My friend bought me the blackberry jam and assured me that it was good. I accepted the gift with no inkling of the danger hidden in that innocuous purple goop.
[Pictured: Asian pear jelly with specks of Tahitian vanilla bean]
Last month I finally tasted the jam, which was more of a cross between a jam and a jelly. The vibrant color, soft set, and rich flavor didn’t change me overnight. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day. But several days later, my toaster seemed exhausted and my syrup looked forlorn when I ignored it to spread the jam on waffles. Still, I didn’t suspect anything was wrong until I started topping blueberry muffins with the blackberry jam, which was not only excessive, but insulting to the blueberries. I’d become desperate—desperate for an excuse to eat this jam without spooning it into directly into my face, or worse, throwing back my head and letting the whole jar empty into my gullet. I’m so glad that I ran out of jam before I ran out of bread, otherwise I might have started putting it on corn tortillas. Good jam rules!
I took a pile of ripe Concord grapes and made my own jam for the first time. It wouldn’t set up, so I cooked it for a loooong time, then added pectin “just in case.” It ended up too sweet, extremely overcooked, and far too firm. Yet that screwed up jam still blew away every grape jam or jelly that I’d ever tasted before. I learned an important fact: Even bad homemade jam tastes better than most store jam.
Was it psychological? Maybe the knowledge that the Amish or I and not Mrs. Smuck, Mr. Polaner, or Ms. Goober had made the jam made it taste better. To test this theory, I bought three different local and/or Amish jams from the farmer’s market, all labeled “homemade,” and opened all of them at the same time to taste straight. Not only did those jams not rule, they didn’t even quality for minor administrative posts in the culinary kingdom. Clearly something else was at work. My guess is superior fruit and love. Love makes everything taste better.
This has ruined me. Absolutely ruined me. Until I find a better source for jam, I either have to special order from Yoder’s or make it myself. Other jams won’t cut it anymore.
[Pictured: How much is that jam in the window? Annie’s eternal jamnation!]
My most recent effort, pictured above, is an Asian pear jelly with Tahitian vanilla bean, a variation of a pear preserve recipe. Asian pears give up a lot of liquid, more so than regular pears apparently, so I actually ended up with three jars of preserves and four jars of jelly. My instinct on the flavoring was dead on. The flowery Tahitian vanilla combined with the winey pear flavor to make something subtle yet overwhelmingly flavorful. (Do those little black vanilla specks turn anyone else on?) This is my favorite preserve so far. Please don’t tell anybody that I licked the plate after the photo shoot.
I would post a recipe, but so far the preserves haven’t set up quite yet, though the jelly has. I can’t post a recipe that may not turn out, especially when it requires peeling, coring, and dicing juicy pears that squirt you in the eye for half an hour. When I get it right, I’ll post it, and I will get it right, because I made only seven jars of the stuff.
Somebody please hide the corn tortillas.