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Jam making

Does anyone still eat jam?

I ask myself this as I stand over a hot stove of bubbling tomatoes, sugar, ginger and lemon, stirring at the edges as the lustrous fruit melds into a gorgeous mush of tomato jam. I will carefully ladle it in glass jars, top them with metal lids, process the jars in a boiling water bath, and store them until I present them to my friends at the holidays. I fully expect that at least five of those jars will disappear into their fridges, never to reappear until sometime in 2026.

Making jam is a hot and sticky and often aggravating business. At some point I am guaranteed to get burned or stained, to have jars refuse to seal properly or to create a batch that is too soupy or simmered to the consistency of tar (looking at you, strawberry preserves). Despite all that, I continue to make jam in late summer and fall because something primal in me believes that if I don’t put food by, I will starve come winter. And jam brings the elegance to preserving food, as opposed to the mundane green beans in my freezer.

That said, I’m reassured by my freezer, which is filled with frozen kale, roasted tomatoes and ratatouille, courtesy of my local CSA. Meanwhile there are pickled beets and red onions in the fridge, and even a jar of pickled kohlrabi. I’m not even sure I really like kohlrabi but it came in the CSA bag so I feel obligated to figure out how to eat it. I also have four jars of jam from last summer that I’ll use up myself because the only thing someone wants less than a jar of jam is a year-old jar of jam.

I first made jam almost 45 years ago when we discovered blackberries in the wilds of the acreage behind our old house on Route 6A. Being a city girl, I dressed for battle in foul weather gear when I first went to pick them. As the years went on, I became immune to the tiny prickers in my fingers, the scratches on my legs, and the stains on my hands. Blackberries are satisfying in that they fill the bottom of your container quickly, unlike the BB-size wild blueberries I pick in Maine. They are a pain, however, because to make good jam with the wild blackberries, you have to remove the seeds with a food mill.

Wild grapes are even more satisfying because you can pick several pounds of them in about 20 minutes if you find a stash. But it’s become harder to find them along Cape Cod roadways as neighborhoods become more developed and the towns become more diligent about cutting back brush. Last year, a friend gifted me about six pounds from her property. I still have one large jar left. The aroma reminds me of walking on a late summer morning and smelling wild grapes along the roadway. I have never picked beach plums, the classic Cape preserving fruit, and I might never. Years ago, my mother-in-law would give us beach plum jelly every year for Christmas. I’m not a fan of jelly, perhaps from too many years of eating Welch’s. It just tastes like wiggly Kool-Aid to me. I used to re-gift it, and sometimes I wondered if, like, fruitcake, there was only one jar of beach plum jelly and we all just kept passing it around.

Instead, I love the surprise of tomato jam, made from a 1940s recipe. This year, I already made the aforementioned strawberry jam, most of which turned out pretty good. I think I’ll also try some plum this year and maybe some ginger peach, if I can get to it soon enough to find good peaches. And I have some frozen rhubarb that will make delicious chutney when combined with fresh fall cranberries. By November, I will be ready to hunker down for winter to share my bounty.

My apologies to those of you who will receive these jars and gamely smile and remark at how clever I am before you stick them in your fridge and lose them behind the pickles. Just know that I give you this gift in love because I don’t want you to starve.