Ralph Gardner Jr: Getting Into A Jam

Sep 9, 2017

Ralph Gardner Jr. picking raspberries at Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, NY
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

With the headlines – a Mexican earthquake sandwiched between two superstorms – sounding apocalyptic, mental health almost requires those of us out of harm’s way not only to give thanks but also to take solace in life's smaller pleasures.

Canning, for example.

Canning, it seems to me, is more popular than it’s been probably been since the days of the pioneers when people put stuff up just to survive the winter.

But with inventions such as refrigeration, and the produce aisle at the local supermarket filled with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables from here and abroad throughout the cold weather months, there’s no need to go to all that effort.

So why do we?

That’s the question I kept asking myself from approximately 9 a.m. Monday morning, Labor Day, through Tuesday afternoon.

That’s how long it took me to pick, pay for, wash, sugar, macerate overnight, boil, can and label four pounds of raspberries that I turned into raspberry jam.

I’m not one of those individuals conceited enough to put a price tag on his time. Since some of the best things in life can’t be reduced to dollars and cents. But if I were I’d conservatively estimate that the four small Mason jars that resulted from my effort qualify as the most expensive jam I’ve ever tasted.

But returning to my original question. How did it come to this? What made me unwilling to take the sensible route and plunk down an eminently affordable $3.99 for a 13-ounce jar of Bonne Maman mixed berry jam at my local Hannaford’s?

There are several plausible explanations, none of them sufficient unto themselves; and now that the task is accomplished and the jam disappointingly under sugared – at least to my taste -- inadequate even when you put them all together.

The first excuse is that there are occasionally grown children in the house who are at that time of life where reducing things like tomatoes to sauce resembles a religious experience. In other words, they’re “Do It Yourself” millennials. I probably caught the bug from them.

The next explanation is that I suffer from an excess of hubris. I generally believe I can do things better than other people. Not program a computer or fly a plane, perhaps, but certainly stand over a hot stove and stir.

I’m not an excessive believer in “Farm to Table.” It would be nice to know where my food comes from. But not knowing isn’t among the myriad things that keeps me up at night. So that’s out as a reason for how I got myself into this fix.

The last reason, and the most plausible, given that I’m occasionally prone to bouts of pessimism, is that I’m preparing for the Apocalypse. I don’t know how far four jars of jam will get me and my loved ones come nuclear winter or a thousand year weather event, but there’s still some comfort to be taken in knowing the jars are living in our basement just waiting to be called into duty.

The raspberries’ metamorphosis from unsuspecting fruit to designer jam commenced, as I said, last Monday morning when I joined my daughter Lucy and her boyfriend Malcolm at Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, New York.

After approximately an hour I’d almost filled a large cardboard container, though I couldn’t help but notice that Lucy’s berries looked bigger and more beautiful than mine. Leave it to me to turn picking crimson berries under a cerulean sky into a competitive enterprise.

The idea to let them macerate overnight in the refrigerator didn’t come from me or some random cookbook or website but from my younger daughter Gracie, a professional chef. She claimed the flavor more intense if you do so, then separate the resulting liquid from the berries, boil the broth, throw in the berries, and cook – well -- seemingly forever.

That’s approximately how long it took me to reduce the fruit to a state that more closely resembled jam than soup.

Did I mention that if you don’t go out and buy brand new lids for the jars and also sterilize the jars by boiling them the seal may be breached and consuming the contents can result in contracting diseases last seen during the Middle Ages?

Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. And I am a big believer in the human immune system. Nonetheless, that scuzzy stuff that grows on jam if it lingers too long in your refrigerator doesn’t rate high on the appetizing scale.

Where the art of jam making comes in, at least as far as I can tell, is knowing when the bubbling liquid has congealed. This is done simply by dropping a little jam onto a frozen plate. When it doesn’t dribble you know you’re done.

The problem is defining dribble. Does dribble mean it slides off the plate and onto the floor. Or that it creeps stealthy like a leopard sneaking up on its prey?

My favorite part of the process was labeling my jars. I don’t believe in tooting my own horn. But “Ralph’s Remarkable Raspberry Jam” sounded a pretty fair description to me.

Next year I’ll just have to remember not to go so easy on the sugar.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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