Food, Food Artisans

It’s All in the Jam

Please join us for:

The Secret Life of Preserves: with Special Guests: Noah Marshall-Rashid & James Beard Award Winner, Justin Rashid from American Spoon

reserve your seat here

For over thirty years, the folks at American Spoon in Petoskey, have elevated preserves beyond the supermarket variety that sits for months on the refrigerator door. Noah and his family use only fresh fruit and craft their preserves by hand to preserve the maximum amount of flavor from early glow strawberries, damson plums, sour cherries and more. Spend a cozy winter evening this coming Tuesday, February 4, 630pm at Zingerman’s Events on 4th, with Noah to hear the American Spoon story and taste the spreads that have made the company a Michigan icon.

I’ve officially hit the mid-winter food slump. Don’t get me wrong, I adore potatoes, could find a million ways to cook squash, and have no problem eating pasta for days. But what I really crave in the midst of these epic, sub-zero temperatures is fruit. Not flavorless, too-big-for-comfort grocery store fruit, but real farm-grown treasures that fill the Ann Arbor markets all summer long. Despite the limited supply of such delights this time of year, there is something that has helped me fill the void—jam.

My first jab at jam making came during my junior year of college. The month was April and the first crop of spring produce had finally made its debut. Feeling the itch for some fresh, non-starch-based foods in my life, I made the trek across campus to do a bit of shopping at the Kerrytown Farmer’s Market. While taking my prerequisite stroll down the U-shaped walkway, I felt like I had reached produce heaven. Strewn across fold-up plastic tables were hefty bunches of skinny asparagus spears, English peas waiting to be plucked from their waxy pods, delicate artichokes tinted with shades of violet and army green, and carrots so petite and strikingly orange in color that they looked like a different vegetable entirely. But what really caught my eye were the pints of bite-sized strawberries and long stems of rosy rhubarb. Inspired by strawberry rhubarb pie, possibly my favorite dessert of all time, and a yearning to finally learn the art of jam making, I told myself that today was the day.

Berries at FM Strawberries Fruit

Fueled with both enthusiasm and eagerness, I left the market and paid a quick visit to the Ann Arbor library, checking out as many books on jam as I could find (and comfortably carry in my backpack). Next, Downtown Home and Garden for the full lot of jam making supplies: boxes of mason jars, a ladle for spooning the jam into jars, a funnel to get the jam in the jars without any spillage (an ideal product for my cleaning-crazed self), and a special set of tongs for lifting jars in and out of hot water baths. Who knew that a food product with only three ingredients—fruit, sugar, and some sort of thickening agent—would require such an extensive collection of equipment?

Upon arriving home, I jumped right in. I boiled a big pot of water and sterilized all of the jars. I washed the fruit and chopped them into tiny pieces. I cooked them down with a frightening (but necessary) amount of sugar, reduced the mixture down until it achieved a velvety texture, and then thickened the batch with a bit of lemon juice. After reaching the point where the mixture could coat the back of a spoon, I ladled my concoction into the jars, quickly capped them off, and re-dunked them in the water bath to sterilize again, making them safe to keep out of refrigeration for months. Within only a matter of an hour, I had gone from two bunches of rhubarb and four pints of strawberries to six jars of jam. Now that is some math I can get behind.

Apricots with Hand Finished Jars Finished Jars in Line

After sampling the first taste of my creation, I was hooked. And for summers to come, I continued to experiment with new flavors and combinations. Last summer, in particular, I entered into what you may call a “jam frenzy” of sorts. Apricot, blueberry, tomato, sour cherry, red currant, Concord grape, pears, gooseberries—you name the fruit, and odds are I cooked it down and put it in a jar. To me, the whole jam-making process feels almost like meditation. You set out with this intention, take all of the preparatory steps to achieve that intention, exercise great patience and concentration, and end up with something beautiful. While the process itself is fairly labor intensive, like any other skill in the kitchen, it just takes a bit of practice before it becomes second nature. I will continue to cherish those moments of kitchen calm, watching fruit transform into a tangible marker of a time, a place, and a season. For me, food doesn’t get much better than that.