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jam, jelly and marmalade

13 march 2022

Jelly featured largely in my childhood diet – almost always as Welch's Grape, a consistent and featureless sweet purple blob to be eaten on white bread, with smooth peanut butter or hard margarine. I distrusted jams, and "preserves" were worse: you never knew when you'd run across half a soggy strawberry, lying there in the nice jelly like a dead insect. Marmalade was worst of all, with inedible bits of rind and fibrous junk all but crowding out the sweet matrix.

Adulthood gradually brought me round to foods with some texture, and now I would say that orange marmalade – specifically Koo brand bitter-orange marmalade from South Africa, which is somehow very popular in Germany – is my favorite jam of all.

We now associate marmalade mostly with oranges. But Sarah Hood, in her global history Jam, Jelly and Marmalade, says that etymologically, marmalade is a quince preserve. The Portuguese word for quince was (and still is) marmelo, so when Portuguese quince paste first came to Britain in the early-modern period, a word for fruit preserves tagged along.

Jams are ancient in many parts of the world, often made with honey, a primeval sweetener and a good preservative. But the jams we know date from the early-modern period and the mass cultivation of sugar, first by enslaved people and then by free workers barely removed from slavery. Sugar first entered luxury preparations that took advantage of surplus, then of exotic fruit; but by the year 1900 or so, cheap sugar – with a dubious hint of fruit somewhere about it – had become a staple working-class food, spread with a little butter or margarine on cheap bread and rolls.

But as it became an industrial commodity, jam also became one of the great homemade foods, accessible (after the invention of the Mason jar and its imitators) even to small households that opportunistically "put up" fruit for treats, basic diet, or as a form of survivalism. Jams became a hedge against war or famine. Hood observes that the putting up of varenye, a coarse syrupy jam, is a time-honored form of preparation for hard winters in Russia and Ukraine; one wonders how much varenye is keeping people alive right now.

But there are happier thoughts to have about jam and we might as well indulge them while we can. Jams, jellies, preserves, and marmalades run a gamut of textures, as I knew from childhood. Jell-O, still called "jelly" in Britain and Ireland, is one extreme: a transparent sweet aspic, ideally with no natural flavors or colors at all. Jellies are thicker but still strained of organic bits; jams and preserves have lots of roughage; marmalade includes whole "chips" of citrus fruits; and "spoon sweets" and varenye feature whole fruits in thick liquid, preserving the fruit without setting it into spreadable form. But then you can go full circle; Jell-O is so insipid that whole hideous cuisines have been developed around suspending bits of stuff in its midst.

Except pineapple, if I remember correctly; pineapple juice inhibits Jell-O from setting. The ideal fruit for jelly is quince, as the Portuguese discovered early on; quince is among the highest fruits in natural pectin. Membrillo remains a prized thick "fruit cheese," done to extreme gourmet specifications in Orléans and called cotignac there.

Other fruits ideal for jellying are apple, which tends to be a cheap neutral base for many jams; citrus; and plums. My Slovak grandmother used to get plum pavidla to put into kolachkys, little versions of the big cream-cheese donuts called kolaches and so popular, via accidents of immigration, in 21st-century Texas. Baking with jam fillings is a whole chapter in their history, from Linzer tortes to paczki to jelly rolls.

Hood includes few baking recipes in her book, though there is one for a big old heavy Bakewell pudding. Most of her recipes are for making preserves themselves, something I'm not about to undertake unless current inflationary trends make Smucker's unattainable.

The second half of Jam, Jelly and Marmalade becomes less a global history and more a sequence of stories about great British jam companies. Still, there is interesting material here too. Particularly striking is the story of Pink's, a jam-maker that skyrocketed, starting in the 1870s, to become one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world by 1910.

The huge success of the business was built on the principles of grinding workers at low wages to produce the cheapest possible product for consumers who could afford nothing better. (62)
A huge strike led by women workers rocked Pink's in 1911. By 1920 the company was sold and its now-repellent brand name disappeared, its assets dissolving into the larger world of British preserves. Would that all businesses that become synonymous with exploitation of workers would become so obnoxious.

Hood, Sarah B. Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.