Fruit are the mileposts of my summer. Strawberries set it off. You can smell the fields before you reach them, as the warmth of the day starts to hint at the summer heat. The best berries hide underneath the leaves. Blackberries are soon to follow. Hidden in the brambles. The berries sometimes bigger than quarters. Long sleeves are required to pass their security. Blueberries come July. In the morning, the mist hovers above the dark green bushes. Their berries hang heavy, gradients of dark blue to dusty neon green. From thumb to palm to bucket they tumble. Peaches are quick to follow. A smell fit for heaven. Then the first of the Celeste Figs, small, dusty purple beauties. Perfect for pickling. Then the gigantic Turkey Figs that bust at the seams if August brings too much rain. Finally, the much-worshiped Black Mission Figs. Their dark skin, and vibrant pink inside makes the best jam. And right when the hurricanes start rolling in, apples and pears are bending branches with their heavy harvests with grapes book ending them.
I’ve been in these fields since I was a toddler. Every Mother’s Day, strawberries were picked and jam was made. A tradition my mother carried from her mother. The taste of summer was preserved for our beach PB and J’s or an Austrian Linzer cake on a birthday.
My Oma arrived in this country at ten years old on a ship that sailed through an Atlantic hurricane. Grapefruit eaten underdeck to keep the nausea away. As poor immigrants in Tenafly, NJ, they grew everything they ate. Canning, pickling, preserving was a necessity to stretch the summer harvests to winter dinners. My mother’s first batch of jam was currants. Also known as Rote Ribisel. An Austrian tradition, taught to her by her Austrian mother.
There is something quite overwhelmingly beautiful to have pounds and pounds of fruit. Trunk loads driven over the bridge. Biking home at dusk with bag loads of figs. Such a treasure. Summer season is such a hustle, especially here on our islands. But by being able to preserve fruit and vegetables, we save the perfect moments of the season, and turn it into something that is such a treat to enjoy later. I think of how much these berries have passed through my hands; washing, smashing, boiling, ladling. Until they are tagged and set up at Secotan Market. I think of how long these fig trees and pear trees and apple trees have been here. Way before I walked on their land.
I think of the varieties people have asked us to make. The ones that remind them of their mothers and their grandmothers. The pickled watermelon rind they haven’t had since they were a child. The ones they used to make and want to pass on. I think of the children’s book Heckedy Peg. While going to the market, a witch transforms the mother’s seven children into food, and in order to break the spell she must guess what children have turned into what. I start knowing people by what their favorite flavor of jam is. Triple Berry for you. That one is a Hot Figadee. The family that only has ever bought plain strawberry. My college roommate is orange marmalade. And my mother has become known as The Jam Lady, and me as The Jam Lady’s daughter. Our first names forgotten.
In the beginning, ten years ago, we only had one flavor: strawberry. Handpicked by us in Point Harbor in James and Lydia’s fields. The varieties on the table have grown from the people and the land that surrounds us. The summer I was in Montana, and my mother was up to her ears in figs from our friend’s backyards. The ninety some year-old man, who we used to buy raspberries from, a ½ pint at a time. Our first ferry ride to Knotts Island. The man who told us to make Hot Pepper Jelly. Too many tomatoes from the garden turned into salsa, Bloody Mary Mix, and chutneys. Fred’s delicious organic carrots, cucumbers, beets, okra, and watermelons pickled into slices and spears. The year we finally gathered enough mulberries to make one batch of jam, rationed out to the family. The stories our customers tell us of their new inventions: our mango jam on grilled shrimp, peach-habanero salsa on tuna, our triple berry as a marinade. A web connecting us all.
Making jam is rhythmic. Pickling is precision. Both are a meditation of sort.
As I stir with wooden spoon, making figure eights, waiting for the fruit to boil. My time has been measured by minutes and cups and pints and half pints. Transforming berries and stone fruit to treasured syrup. I’ve always wanted to be an alchemist; apprentice under such magic, to be able to call the wind, to align people to their true north star, and of course to transform something to pure gold. In this life time, the closest I’ve come is being The Jam Lady’s Daughter.
It is rare to pay Island Jams & Bakery's kitchen a visit, any time of year, without finding a pot of goodness simmering on the stove. Barbara and Sarah are the mother daughter duo behind it all. Their signature creations continue to captivate us at every brunch. The preservation of their family food tradition is the heart of Secotan Market.