When summer gives you a motherlode of fresh fruit, the obvious solution is to make jam -- right? Not so fast, you home-cooking enthusiasts. Of course homemade jam will taste delicious, be better for you than store-bought, and allow you to appreciate summer's bounty all year long. But once you start looking for jars and other supplies, you'll soon realize that peeling and cooking the fruit is the easy (and cheap) part. It turns out that while the "slow food" movement has produced thousands of enthusiasts who want to return to the roots of old-time cookery, the equipment supply stream hasn't quite caught up yet.
If you believe any of a number of rosy food section feature stories, this "retro-haute preservation method" is on the rise. Last year a few foodies launched Canning Across America, which calls for collective food preservation events ("canning parties") in various forward-thinking cities around the country during the month of August. And the stories of the urban homesteading movement conjure up pictures of a community of canners lovingly making jam while glistening new jars await.
But if you're determined to start doing it on your own you'll either spend a lot of time driving around looking for the right supplies - or it'll cost you. In my case, I traveled to six stores and spent more than $53 on jars and pectin before I was able to finish my first full batch.
My jam quest began a few weeks ago when I happened to have a jar of my mother's homemade strawberry jam sitting next to the econo-tub of strawberry jam I had bought for our kids' lunches. While the homemade stuff was a brilliant jewel-toned crimson in the sun, the storebought stuff was, by comparison, a dull brownish red. The list of ingredients read "Strawberries, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid and pectin." High fructose corn syrup? Since when did they start putting that in jam?
Inspired, I vowed to make fresh fruit jams for the rest of the summer. And I got lucky: On my next trip to the farmers' market, when I asked my favorite fruit purveyor if she had any bruised "seconds," she handed over thirty pounds of slightly mushy plums that were destined for the trash bin. With a mob of fruit flies gathering over my basket, I knew that time was ticking for me to make gallons of jam. I just needed the supplies - pronto.
When I searched for "jam jars" online, the closest store that came up first was Kmart, so I dashed over to my local Kmart with hopes high. "Do you have jam jars?" I asked the stock clerk. He shook his head. "Nope. That's a seasonal item."
"Seasonal? Like what season? Christmas?"
"Don't most people do their canning in the summertime?"
He shrugged. "That's not what corporate thinks."
My next stop was Michael's, the craft store, which sold large jars individually. No good. I needed at least 20 of them, preferably small ones, packaged in a large flat that would give me a quantity discount. So I walked next door to Food 4 Less: "Do you carry jam jars?" "No, we used to, but not any more." At our neighborhood Ralph's, it was the same story. Finally at Von's there was one shelf that had jars packed in dusty boxes: a 12-pack for $18.09. I sucked it up and bought a box, along with $10 worth of fruit pectin, if only to keep the fruit flies at bay. (I later spent another $25 for additional jars and pectin at a kitchen specialty store.)
At a time when we're struggling as a nation with childhood obesity and rampant junk food, why is it so hard (and expensive, for that matter) to make a simple summer jam? Granted, jam is not exactly a diet food, and sure, there's plenty of sugar in it, but at least it's fresh, minimally processed, and lacking in corn syrup. And even if you're not eating it yourself, you're probably spreading it on your kids' peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day. (According to the International Jam and Jelly Association, the average child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by high school graduation.)
Canning expert Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars has some tips about where to find jars in mostly East Coast supermarkets, but even she admits that you'll sometimes have to "search out the odd corners, like that seldom-used hardware aisle and at the end of the pet food section." Some of McClellan's readers also suggest scouring garage sales for old jars. Garage sales or the pet food section?! Sheesh.
Making homemade jam is easy enough to do, and it tastes great. Let's all resolve to preserve some fruit this summer. Maybe then our local stores will start carrying canning supplies on a regular basis, and we can enjoy the real stuff all year long.