Essay: Jam as Muse
How one afternoon turning fruit into spread evokes childbirth, opera, magic realism, Vogue magazine and more.
By Paige Lehmann
As those who cultivate small orchards and gardens or who battle with copious amounts of blackberry bushes have recently discovered, the harvest is here. Some of us are taking advantage of the bounty and preserving the luscious sugars and colors for darker days. Usually I am oblivious to fruit and the cycles of nature, having had a garden only once before, and then killing it superbly by both not watering it at all and watering it too much. Thus, I was surprised when, last weekend, I was inundated with calls from friends begging for assistance. They were prisoners to mountains of fruit and needed help boiling it down in order to regain control of their kitchens. Suddenly, before I knew it, my jam-making card was full, though I'd never actually made a drop in my life. And so I realized: autumn is come.
Jam making is pretty easy, especially if your first time is like mine--assisted by a gourmet chef. Alexis had asked me to help her conquer her plums, but she had a catering job the next day, so our jam project would be one of the many dishes prepared simultaneously in her itty-bitty kitchen. I had to do the hard part: go to the store and pick up the low-sugar pectin. Though I didn't then know what pectin was, I took notes and headed to the nearest Safeway.
In the pectin aisle, I spied a box of European chocolate mousse and considered buying that, too, as memories of Italian vacations flooded my mind. But no, this was Jam Night, so I put the chocolate mousse box down and headed to the checkout.
Upon entering Alexis' house, the smell of freshly chopped celery left me dazed. She was in the kitchen as I pushed open the door. On the dining room table reigned a gigantic baking tray covered with a lemon square that would later be sliced into hundreds of bite sizes. Another large, deep tray was filled with mushroom caps, each brimming with homemade stuffing. On an overturned plastic bin that created more counter space sat a giant black pot filled with pitted plums blended into a thick stew. It was then that the secret of jam making was revealed.
Alexis asked me to tear open a pectin box and retrieve the recipes inside. What? I was carrying around the secrets to jam making in my purse this whole time? I retrieved the box and extracted a long, folded recipe on how to make low-sugar jam. Unfortunately, for every six and a half cups of plum stew, we needed to add four and a half cups of white sugar. "Did you buy the low-sugar pectin?" Alexis worried. "Yeah," I said, brandishing the box. "Well, maybe four-and-a-half cups is low sugar," she said. "I once saw a recipe where you add eight."
Alexis insisted that we couldn't double the recipe and make one huge batch, so we had to break it down and make two smaller batches. I still don't understand why we couldn't do it all at once, but (a) she's the chef and (b) the pectin recipe was really strict and even put some directions in caps: NO CHANGING THE AMOUNT OF SUGAR. Geez, I thought, as I put the recipe down and helped Alexis pour the right amount of plums into another, smaller black pot. We took our collection of jars and stacked them in a very high pot filled with water sitting over a low flame.
It was my job to stir. In addition to making Chinese chicken salad, shortbread jam cookies, lemon squares and stuffed mushrooms, Alexis was also rolling out handmade pizza dough and adding topping to what would soon be our dinner. We brought the plum stew to a rolling boil and lowered the heat. Then we took the pectin, which we'd mixed with half a cup of sugar, and poured it in. I stirred some more, we regained our boil, then we added the other four cups of sugar, quenching the boil which, while stirring, we again had to recreate. It was then that the magic happened.
The plums, which were a light red to begin with, delved into the deeper world of melted rubies. The surface took on the look of melted glass, and as I stirred, the color grew dark and intense like an alizarin pomegranate, reminding me of stained glass windows in Paris, like we'd taken them down from cathedrals, removed the shards and were now boiling them to make ambrosia. The jam, of its own accord, became powerful and dramatic, and I wanted to give it a name worthy of its beauty.
"Let's call this Shakespeare Jam," I said. "Or Hamlet Jam." As I stirred, the color imbued itself on my brain, and I tried to connect it to other moments of color in Shakespeare. "Is the 'out damn spot' scene from Macbeth?" I asked, grabbing my notebook to write down ideas. "Macbeth," Alexis confirmed, opening the oven. "Aren't you supposed to not say that out loud?" "That's only backstage." "Help me put this pizza on the stone," she said, and I had to abandon my jam stirring to slide the pizza from its tray to the hot stone in the oven. She then sprinkled corn meal on the dough, a finishing touch that reminded me of Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer for Vogue. "This is Vogue Pizza," I said, as we closed the oven door. "How long is that supposed to boil?" Alexis pointed at the boiling jam. It had developed a foamy surface and no longer resembled melted glass but ruby-colored pond scum. "Oh, I don't know. I was taking notes." "You have to pay attention!" She picked up the recipe sheet. "It says one minute." "Then turn it off! Turn it off!"
Voilà, the jam was done. All we had to do now was ladle it from the pot into the scalding hot jars. As I watched the first glass jar fill with our former liquid rubies, a warm feeling flooded my body, as if I were watching the birth of my first child. Last week, my boss brought her newborn to work and described the feeling of those first few minutes when they handed her the child and she placed it on her chest, watching it breathe while holding the miracle that she created.
As we sat on the office couch cooing over her baby girl, who was asleep in her carrier, she told me that she'd do it all over again just to relive those first all over again just to relive those firstfive minutes. This jam-making experience is the closest I've come to creation and, just maybe, was something like having my first child. We filled half of our jars then took a dinner break.
Alexis slid the Vogue Pizza off the stone and we divvied it up with her boyfriend, Dave. I was busy licking the jam-covered spatula, which was more delectable and sweeter than any candy.
"This would be delicious on a scone," I said, and as I hadn't eaten a scone in several years because I find them dry and salty, I realized that this was Miraculous Jam. Nothing else could make me want to eat a scone. As Dave stood in the hall talking about pizza, I wrote down some brilliant (now lost) thoughts for this story and Alexis began to sing.
Her song was a haunting lilt that emanated from the sink, where she washed dishes. I recognized it, but couldn't recall what it was. The whispery notes evoked my adolescent consciousness, and suddenly I was 13 again, in my freshman year of high school, and it felt confusing and strange.
"What are you singing?"
"'Phantom of the Opera,'" she said. "It's in my car. Do you want me to get it?"
As "Phantom" played from a warped cassette in the living room, we sang along while Alexis started more desserts and I stirred the second ruby brew. The color this time seemed more intense than the last, and the surface was even shinier. It was as red as theater curtains, as dramatic as love and as beautiful as an operatic voice onstage.
"This is Opera Jam," I pronounced. "What would have happened if Christine had married the Phantom? What would they have done—lived together under the opera house? Or would he have traveled with her, disguised as a maid?"
"I guess the Phantom didn't really think it through," Alexis said. "He's kind of creepy." She handed me a whisk covered with a white, fluffy substance. "Whipped cream for the mousse," she said.
"Yay." I licked the cream off the curved metal wires. Just before the minute of jam boiling was up, Alexis took the empty whisk from my hand and replaced it with a new one covered in chocolate. It was then, with the chocolate mousse and the beauty of the jam, that I remembered the name Aureliano, from Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I always thought was such a beautiful name.
Then my thoughts went to Úrsula Buendía, also in the novel, who in her later years would walk around her house talking about the circularity and repetition of time. Italy came to mind like a reflection as I licked the chocolate-mousse-covered whisk and saw myself thinking of Italy while holding a box of powdered European chocolate mousse in the supermarket. The minute was over, we reduced the heat and birthed, in her kitchen, the second batch of the most dramatic jam this side of the Western theater.
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