Strawberry Jams, Year II – A Personal Essay

When it comes to cooking and baking, I am rather fearless, but up to last year jams had the power to scare me away.

I enjoy jams and am quite familiar with the recipe, watching for years my own mother cook batch after batch, summer after summer. But I had the strange notion that my own jam was destined to mold, that there was a secret to successful jams.

Jams were my mother’s expertise and before her, that of my grandmother’s and my aunts’. She never failed to give me a few jars when I moved out of the family home. I was brought up with her philosophy that homemade jams (long before the era of organic fruits and natural sweeteners) taste nothing like shop-bought ones, even the luxury grocers ones simmered in copper cauldrons. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead in the supermarket with a pot of jam in her basket. Fortnum and Mason’s orange marmalade was perhaps the only exception, a rare and exotic treat “not for children”. During my rebellious teenaged years and early adulthood I had defiantly tried Confipote and Bonne Maman, both leading supermarket brands in France, and although that some of them were really good tries, they never actually could hold a candle to those of my mother.

I was aware that my fears were irrational. Hadn’t I cooked and baked lots of more complicated dishes? Wanting to confront it, I did my research, mostly online and in cookbooks, but the ways to prevent molding seemed scary. Paraffin, for a first. Sounds like a medicine brand, not really food, right? Sterilization ditto. The image of a hospital springs to mind, not my tiny kitchen. It seemed that I would either get burnt or hurt or I would get green, yucky jars in my cupboards.

Jam days in my childhood were special. One of my most vivid (probably idealized) memory is about collecting berries in the grazing fields for blackberry jam (back when it wasn’t a smartphone) and redcurrant jelly, picked from meadows hedges (back when they weren’t electrified or barbed wires), filling pails with them and filtering the bright colored pulp through a real stocking (French are barbarians when it comes to hygiene, granted, but those stockings were washed before and thrown out after, in case you are wondering.)

I had the impression from my childhood experience that making jam took whole days and made a huge mess in the kitchen. But my mother didn’t imagine making only 4 jars of jams, it had to be at least 20 jars for each batch to make it “worth its while”, whatever that meant. I sat in front of a mountain of apricots waiting to have their stone removed. And I should have known that a child who has been promised to lick the frothy scum “as soon as it will be over” has a pretty subjective notion of time and will think every minute as a whole hour.

So in 2011, year of daring discoveries, I cooked jams. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, not a long-matured decision. It just happened that a street hawker tried to finish his day by offering me his last 2 kilos of strawberries for next to nothing. Now I have my fears and insecurities but I know a good deal. And there are only so many very ripe strawberries two people can eat over one day with cream and sugar.

I knew I was hooked as soon as the heavenly smell rose in the kitchen and filled the whole flat. Pink stuff was oozing, bright red bubbling lava. Who would believe it was natural? Now I knew what the garish pink candies from the junk food aisle were meant to imitate. I just filled the jars, shut them tight and put them still piping hot upside down. I’m sure by now that the dieticians and cooks are horrified by my (very French?) lack of hygiene but don’t forget, at that very moment I still believed that infamous mold would develop within a few weeks and that I would have to throw away most of it!

But sure enough, summer and fall went by without any foul smell or suspect greenish creature spreading at the back of my cupboards. I gained confidence. I was proud to eat my own strawberry jams in the dead of winter, and to open a jar at breakfast when my parents visited. So I waited with a great impatience the return of spring to make a new batch of jams. From now on I have joined the secret club of “those people” who make jams.

It just lately downed on me that my obvious reluctance to make my own jams, while I trod fearlessly in other cooking areas, had to do with my relationship with my mother, and how a simple jar of homemade jam could convey messages about homemaking and maternal love. My mother was mostly a stay-at-home mother (only working part-time when we kids were a lot older) and takes a lot of pride in her cooking and her home. I chose another path, that of a city full-time working mother, but I inherited some of her notions: in the line of my maternal family, mothers cook jams. I took time to acknowledge and accept the strange weight invested in our jams, but I have finally found my place, somehow, in that tradition. That was what the secret was all about.

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4 thoughts on “Strawberry Jams, Year II – A Personal Essay

  1. Thank you for evoking memories of my own mother making jelly. She cooked the fruit and strained in through cheesecloth hung on a hook in the pantry and dripping into a basin. Her hygiene may not have been perfect either, but the results were excellent. Quince jelly — have you ever had it? It is like SUPER apple jelly and so stiff you can cut it into shapes with a knife.

  2. My mom was not much on making jam or any kind of canning, my grandparents, however, they’d make jams and can peaches and pickle beets and cucumbers and oh it was ever so much better than store-bought! I started getting into canning a number of years ago and was terrified at first too! But now I’ve got my husband into it too and while it can be a lot of work it is very worth it!

  3. Oh, this is a lovely essay. My mom stayed at home as well and while she didn’t really love cleaning/decorating/sewing, she was (and remains) a wonderful cook! My dad is actually the jam maker in our family and this reminded me a lot of my times in the kitchen with him…really a warm-hearted and fun piece!

  4. Loved reading this essay Ms. Smithereens. I just made jam for the first time ever. It is a very satisfying luxury to have an English muffin with jam on it with my coffee — something I never do because I don’t buy store-bought jams. (I don’t like any of them — even Bonne Maman.) Am thinking about trying to make marmalade, but am appalled by the amount of sugar in the recipes I’ve found and sugar substitutes don’t have the same preservative qualities as sugar. Didn’t use parrafin; did water boil processing instead, which was much less complicated than I imagined. I’d like to can some fresh veggies too, but not sure that I want to invest in a pressure canner, which is apparently needed for items without a lot of sugar or pickled.

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