Issue No. 18: Stove Top Sweets

Nostalgia is a powerful force. Many of us grew up with relatives that made jams or confections, often from the bounty of their own gardens. The memory of those flavors transports us to those times: family gatherings, birthday treats, holiday feasts. We edit those memories into the stories of our life. We leave out the bad, focus on the good and yearn for the tastes we left behind.

Nostalgia is a big part of food, and artisan food in particular.

And nostalgia has an out-sized effect on sweetmakers, probably because homemade sweets were such a rare treat when we were kids. Many of the small scale food makers I’ve come to know create foods that are not just delicious but make people feel something about what’s in their mouth. Eating their stove top sweets is an experience far beyond just satisfying hunger. Time stops. Eyes close and we remember the well-worn linoleum floors of another kitchen. A copper jam pot bubbling on the old electric range, sweet steamy clouds billowing out. The radio rambling in the corner. House slippers, stirring the pot, arranging canning jars, picking through the morning’s harvest.

There’s a growing cadre of producers helping us turn back our collective clock in the most delicious ways. Here are a few of my favorite finds of the last few years.

Eric Farrell learned how to make jam in northern France.

Now he creates his own preserves in Ann Arbor from the brief season of Michigan strawberries. He leaves his fruit almost whole so you can feel the texture, something French and British expats will surely be nostalgic for. His strawberry black pepper jam is a cult favorite around town.

Robert Lambert is arguably the marmalade king of Marin County, California.

However, his culinary inspiration comes from his family farm in Wisconsin. He returns every summer to visit, eat and work. His marmalades and fruitcakes  are made with incredibly detailed, only-at-home style steps: he picks the fruit himself and cooks it its own juice, not water, for far deeper flavor.

Cristina Widjaja worked the finance side of things in Silicon Valley for twenty years before leaving to start Hey Boo Coconut Jam.

“I grew up with coconut jam in Indonesia, but couldn’t find anything like it in northern California. So I got my mother’s recipe, made it at home and started selling it at a local co-op.” In two years she’s gone from home kitchen to commercial kitchen—I just discovered her amazing jam this year.

When a small batch food maker is doing the right thing, like these folks, they tap into our collective memories. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t raised in Indonesia. When you taste Cristina’s coconut jam you’ll feel something pulling at you from years behind. It’s the best kind of nostalgia, the edible kind.