Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
I grew up eating my mother’s homemade strawberry jam that we’d make every summer, my siblings and I hand-picking the berries before my mother would boil them down and freeze them into the sugary gels that we’d spread on anything we could reasonably justify for the rest of the year.
When I left home for boarding school, I had storebought jam for the first time I could remember. It tasted like a dirty word to me, all sweet and no flavor. I barely touched the stuff for six years after that.
So when I started making my own jam last fall, I was chasing a Midwestern memory in a Brooklyn walk-up. I quickly found my biggest issue was that I didn’t know what jam looked like in the pot. Rather, I didn’t know how to tell fully gelled, sterilized jam from unfinished material that could potentially harbor deadly bacteria. As it happens, the two look frustratingly similar. Even with a candy thermometer, I didn’t trust the readings, worrying that the elevation or something else I hadn’t measured would make the temperature useless.
Not wanting to poison myself, I grossly overcooked my first few batches. There still sits a half-pint of grapefruit marmalade in my fridge today, waiting for someone to take pity on the thing and just eat it. My first cranberry jam was made for Thanksgiving, but continues to languish in the back of the fridge.
With practice, though, an unlikely combination of two learned skills has saved my preserves from a tough, lumpy hell: keeping a very exact “jam journal” and having a musically trained ear.
The journalkeeping I'd learned from a high school robotics class which graded us equally on our ability to build robots as well as keep very precise notes, and, since I couldn't and still can't build robots, I'd thrown myself wholeheartedly into the note-taking. The musical ear, gained from over a decade of playing in bands and orchestras, allowed me to listen to the jam. I was like the Ratatouille rat without synesthesia.
Making jam is effectively one step: boiling. As such, it has one noise: the sound of boiling. But just like the vague and intuited difference between boiling and simmering, the process is not a one-size-gels-all.
My first batch of jam was a simple cranberry. I begged my boyfriend to take photos of the experience, and he made extra effort to show how much of a mess his neat-freak girlfriend had made. The huge deep red splatters on the countertop made it look like I had murdered a mid-sized animal—and sloppily, at that. That jam boiled angrily, loudly; its bubbles were larger than the berries. The burns on my fingers and arms didn’t scare me, but they sure did hurt.
With practice, and while referencing my journal, I played around with the heat on the gas stovetop. On its vague scale of LO to 10, I found that 7 got me rude boils that burst with dangerous heat. 6 was a little closer, but still popped on my hands like the popcorn kernels that burst after you’ve turned off the microwave.
5 has turned out to be the sweet spot. At 5, my orange-carrot marmalade bubbles jovially, like a soft samba bass rhythm under a woman singing about loving women. Brandied cranberry conserve murmurs gently. It sounds like driving on a suburb road in light rain; pitter-patters, but nothing too bad since you’re only going 25mph.
Eventually, I stopped crouching over to look at the stove dial when adjusting heat. I just listened to hear if the jam was happy. I tried the grapefruit marmalade again, and watched it boil contentedly. My apple butter sounded like the croaks of the frogs that used to live in the pond down the road, steady and natural, done almost without thinking, the sound of summer and warm humidity.
The morning after an uncomfortably big fight with my boyfriend, I made a batch of jam while he was working in the other room. With the act of maintaining relationships on my mind, I joked that I was learning the love languages of boiling jam when he asked how I was doing. In a way, it’s true; I have learned to listen to how the jam expresses itself, and give it what it loves in return. I have watched it, stirred it, and most of all heard it speak. Tonight, I make a ginger lemon jam. I wonder if it will sound more like the sharp spice of the root or the tart laugh of the citrus.