Putting Up with “Putting Up”: A Cultural Analysis of Making Homemade Jam in the Twenty-First Century

A Cultural Analysis of Homemade Jam in the Twenty-First Century

How to Cite

Houston, L. (2006). Putting Up with “Putting Up”: A Cultural Analysis of Making Homemade Jam in the Twenty-First Century: A Cultural Analysis of Homemade Jam in the Twenty-First Century. M/C Journal, 9(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2686
Vol. 9 No. 6 (2006): 'jam'
Published 2006-12-01

I’ve always thought that I should have been a baker. The profession, as I imagine it, appeals to my romantic sense of the art: the thrill of being awake before everyone else with my fingers in a pliant ball of dough; the warmth of the baking ovens at my back, imagining, in between sips of espresso, the joy my fresh baked goods will bring the world as the people in it start their day. Destiny saw fit to set me on another path – that of tenure-track, assistant professor of American literature – and doomed my dreams of a baking career, along with the opportunity for any regular home cooking. With the exception of holiday and special occasion cooking, the nearest I come to my romanticised notion of being a baker is the seasonal session of jam-making. I choose jam-making over jelly-making because in making jam you utilise the whole fruit, as opposed to using only the juice of the fruit to make jelly. However, I console myself with the thought that it is now pointless for me, in this era, to wish to be either a baker or a jam-maker, since both jobs are far from my romanticised notions of them, having succumbed, for the most part, commercially, to the site of the factory and the industrialisation of the assembly line. In fact, why does anyone bother to make homemade jams when they can drive to the neighbourhood supermarket and buy a jar of it for less than half the price of what it might cost to make it at home? The answer to this question calls us to investigate the contemporary foodways of home fruit preservation and canning as they gesture to jam as a cultural sign system whose meaning surpasses mere physical nourishment.

From the sixteenth century (when sugar became readily available to the general populace in Europe) until the Industrial Revolution, cooks “put up” seasonal fruits, as jam- and jelly-making used to be called, for three main reasons: in order to 1) enjoy them at other times of the year, 2) preserve an abundant harvest from going to waste, and 3) store them for possible future times of scarcity (see Wilson and Eden). However, with the Industrial Revolution came commercially prepared products at prices below the cost of the total ingredients for home preparation of such items (Hunter 140). In fact, cookbooks written and published after the mid-eighteen hundreds contain far fewer recipes for jams and jellies than previous cookbooks do, indicating the move away from home preservation of fruit condiments because of the ready availability of commercial ones (Hunter 140). By the twentieth century, it became simply unnecessary for homemakers to prepare jams and jellies at home.

By this time, most Western countries offered consumers a year-round supply of fresh fruits (flown, shipped, or trucked in from somewhere else), as well as an array of choices in cheap, factory-processed condiments; and few households would have stockpiled jams and jellies to safeguard against food scarcity when agricultural subsidies by national governments guaranteed a surplus of production. So why is it that home canning, specifically the making of jams, has not disappeared entirely as a cooking practice? Its continued existence suggests that jam-making, as an art, has cultural symbolism beyond its mere preservation of fruit, and that a growing distrust of factory food products has provided a new rationale for jam-making at home, signifying it one of those “clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the net of ‘discipline,’” one of those “procedures and ruses of consumers [that] compose the network of an antidiscipline” (de Certeau xiv-xv).

With the ready availability of jams at supermarkets, with no nutritional requirements of dietary sugar that require our daily consumption of it, and with no further need of it as a “travel” food (in its earlier history, jam was used to aid travel by sea without incurring scurvy, and as a food for military troops), the continued practice of jam-making in the home emerges in the twenty-first century with a different cultural identity. C. Anne Wilson, in her introduction to “Waste Not, Want Not”: Food Preservation from Early Time to the Present Day, identifies the apparent stakes in the continued practice of making jam at home when she states that freezing produce and making jam

are probably the two kinds of preservation most often carried out at home. To some extent they link up with other present-day food trends, such as concern about the use of chemicals in growing and processing the factory-produced versions. Some of those who blanch and freeze their own vegetables have chosen to grow them organically in the first place because so many of the vegetables on sale in shops, whether fresh or frozen, contain the residues of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. (3-4)

The stakes noted above by Wilson are part of a growing trend of resistance to industrialised process of food production.

Another author in Wilson’s edited collection, Lynette Hunter, provides the historical context for reading jam-making as a form of cultural resistance. She states that Eliza Acton, a radical journalist, published her 1857 cookery book The English Bread Book as a way to take back control of bread baking processes; in other words, she wrote the cookbook “to address the problem of the adulteration of shop-bought bread by encouraging people to make their own” (141). Indicative of a large-scale historical shift in foodways, Hunter finds that Acton makes a similar argument about fruit preserving in her Modern Cookery book of 1868:

Acton feels the need to make the same intentions clear for her section on preserving and scathingly criticises the ‘unwholesome [preserved] fruit vended and consumed in very large quantities’ by the shop-buying public. Acton’s stress on the ‘wholesome’ is a significant precursor of the direction that preserving recipes will take when they re-enter cookery books at the end of the nineteenth century. No longer can the housewife claim to be frugal when she uses preserving skills, but she can claim to produce more nutritious and healthy food. (141)

Thus, Acton’s cookbook reveals a trend away from conceiving home preserving as a means to save money and toward viewing it as a healthier alternative to commercially produced preserves because the consumer maintains control over all steps in the process.

However, in the twenty-first century, there is no nutritional need for jam-making in the home: contemporary proponents of healthy eating proclaim the nutritional values of fresh fruits, not those preserved in sugar, and marketing trends in jams reflect this with the advertisement of many “low sugar” or “no sugar” varieties. Hunter states that making jam at home appeals to cooks at the end of the twentieth-century because “there is the confidence of knowing exactly what has gone into the foodstuff: home preserving is the only sure way of evading major additives and of controlling sugar content, and so on” (153). However, with new varieties of low or no sugar jams available at this time, and with familiar brand names, as well as organic farms, producing organic lines of jam (many offering these for sale at local farmer’s markets or via the internet), Hunter’s argument no longer reflects a primary concern of the home jam-maker. Instead, consumers do not want a relationship with a faceless jar of jam whose conditions of production are beyond their control and whose ingredients and labour come from somewhere else. They want to maintain a relationship with their local landscapes. As Hunter writes, jam-making in the home permits us “to recognise quite precisely how the network of food distribution and supply, quality and quantity, changes from year to year” (153). The exchange of homemade foodstuffs may even suggest an economy of barter that thwarts the exchange of capital for goods.

Thus, home jam-making in the twenty-first century breaks with earlier methods of this practice and comes to represent this contemporary historical moment. The practice of making jam at home is counterculture and radical if it seeks to resist the heavily advertised and marketed brand name jams and provide the consumer with a sense of agency and control over the processes of production. Although it may cost cooks more money and take more time than simply purchasing jam at the supermarket, every jar of jam they make themselves is an act of defiance, however small, because it refuses to put money into the pockets of multinational corporations. Here, to use the terms of Michel de Certeau in the Practice of Everyday Life, the consumer unmakes his own domination by developing practices of everyday life that “poach … on the property” of the corporation and factory owners. Making jam at home is one of the “‘ways of operating’ [that] form the counterpart, on the consumer’s … side, of the mute processes that organise the establishment of socioeconomic order” (xiv).

Contrary to the romantic notion of baking with which I began this essay, where I imagine getting up early in the pre-dawn darkness to practice my craft, jam-making disturbs my sleep on the other end of the day: if I start a batch of jam at night after everyone is out of my way in the kitchen, I am frequently up until one or two o’clock in the morning with my fingers, hands, arms, apron, stove, and countertop coated with sticky smudges of jam, my face roasted from the heat of the hot steam coming off the liquid fruit and sugar mixture, and my stirring hand burned from its proximity to the rolling boil, imagining, as I sip my espresso, the joy my mattress and pillow would bring me if I were using them to sleep. Due to the amount of time, money, scrubbing, and lack of sleep associated with my late-night jam-making sessions, my relationship with homemade jam is a conflicted one; but one that I always manage to value whenever I offer a friend, neighbour, or relative a jar of homemade jam. This communal or social aspect of the place of homemade jam in gift-giving is perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways in which jam-making in the home thwarts global capitalism.

Author Biography

Lynn Houston