Jams, jellies and fruit preserves always have been an essential part of what I considered dessert — a cathead biscuit smothered with butter and homemade jam, jelly or preserves.
I was never one to ask for pie or cake, but if Mama made biscuits instead of cornbread, I would search the fridge for her homemade blackberry or plum jam or peach preserves.
Even though I usually was the one who picked the berries, wild plums or peaches she made into a fruity spread, I rarely ate jams, jellies or preserves when she first made them during the late spring or early summer — that is, unless she made biscuits, which she rarely did during summer months.
It occurred to me recently that I still don’t put jelly on my toast until mid-September. In fact, I usually don’t eat toast until the weather is cooler. As a kid, I usually ate fresh fruit or cold cereal for breakfast during the summer. Our home was not air conditioned in those days, so a hot, stick-to-your-ribs breakfast of grits, eggs and bacon, smoked sausage or country ham was not as appreciated as it was on fall and winter mornings.
I suppose, too, that baking biscuits in a small kitchen already heated up from frying chicken for a family of six was not high on Mama’s summertime list of fun things to do.
Recently, as I ate a second slice of toast smothered with my mother-in-law’s homemade strawberry jam, I thought about how certain foods are seasonal for Southern appetites. Even though she makes her strawberry jam in May, I don’t recall enjoying her incredibly delicious creation during summer visits to North Carolina. Though her home certainly is air conditioned, my palate is conditioned not to eat foods out of season. That’s why I don’t eat pumpkin pie in July, even if it’s available.
It’s hard to say what’s my favorite jam, jelly or preserve. I sometimes have a preference for Smucker’s blackberry jam, then my wife reminds me that her mama gave us a container of her strawberry jam. Mama used to make pear and fig preserves, which were good eating but mostly as a side dish, not something I put on toast or biscuits.
The gift shop of a restaurant we visited years ago in West Jefferson, N.C., sold several homemade jams and jellies, including some stuff I’d never think about eating (like kudzu). But their strawberry and fig preserves got my attention, so I bought a jar and took it home. I wish now I’d bought a case of the stuff.
The only commercially produced preserve that I’ll admit is better than homemade is peach preserves from Lane Southern Orchard near Fort Valley. Now that I think of it, it probably wasn’t produced in a factory. Anyone who’s ever visited Georgia’s Peach County knows the folks at Lane’s know all about peaches.
They grow and sell peaches, retail or wholesale, and they market a mess of peach products, including the world’s best peach preserves and a Vidalia onion-peach hot sauce. You can put that on your biscuit if you want to, but it’s better on pork chops and chicken.
While writing this piece, I thought it might be a good idea to see what the experts say about jams, jellies and preserves, particularly what makes them different. I really prefer not to consult self-acclaimed experts.
According to the folks on the Learning Channel’s website, jams, jellies and preserves are alike in that all are made up of fruit, sugar and pectin. They tell us that pectin is an indigestible fiber that gives jams, jellies and preserves their thickness. They say the fruit in jelly comes in the form of fruit juice. In jam it’s fruit pulp, and in preserves it’s chunks of fruit.
I can see why the experts were unsure about dispensing useless information. If they had told me jams, jellies and preserves taste good, then they’d have told me something else I already knew. If they had told me local honey or Georgia-made cane syrup were satisfactory substitutes for homemade jams, jellies and preserves, that, too, would be something I already know.