The Jam and Jelly Makers

Interviews and photos by Lynn Christoffers

Culling berries from the Island’s beach plum bushes, strawberry patches, or Russian olive trees, or using pineapple and grapefruit from other places: Five jam and jelly makers share their secrets to success.

Linda Lee Alley, New Lane Sundries, West Tisbury

What got you started making jellies?

My grandmother, Hazel Rodgers, always made beach plum jelly, and I watched her when I was 8 or 9 years old — back when they used paraffin wax on top as a seal. And I learned the secret places where she picked the berries.

When did you start making jam on your own?

Probably when I was 25, but not as a business, just as an interest. I started my business later, selling jellies at the West Tisbury Farmers Market 33 years ago. Every Wednesday and Saturday I’m there selling at the Market. I also sell to the local stores: Alley’s General Store, Rainy Day, and Cronig’s Market.

What do you like about the process?  

I get to be at home by myself and be creative. It makes me really happy to do what I do.

Your favorite flavor?

Strawberry jam.

Biggest seller?

Raspberry jam and the West Tisbury Traffic Jam, which is a combination of blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, and blackberry. I made a Chilmark Potluck Jam, but nobody but the locals got the connection — it was raspberry, cherry, and apricot. I had an Edgartown jam last summer: Triangle Terra Jam.

Has your business been affected by the pandemic?

Just a little bit — last year, 2019, was my super year. This year I’m surprised how many people have come to the market — it’s mind blowing. We can only have 250 customers in the outside market at a time, as they limit people coming into the Farmers Market. We were given a 15-page manual for market rules during the pandemic. The summer market continues until the end of October; then the fall market starts. We are organizing it to be outside this year, running until the week before Christmas . . . we’ll see who is hearty enough to stay, once it gets cold outside.

I’ve had a real issue this year getting my supplies: Cronig’s has not been able to get the “sure gel” I use. So I’ve been going to Reliable in Oak Bluffs, and they have it, but they don’t offer the discount, so it’s much more costly.

And Shirley’s Hardware is not getting canners anymore. I go through three or four canners a year. A little pin prick hole develops in the bottom and it ruins them. If I have to, I’ll buy a lobster pot.

What are you making today?

Today I’m cooking down grapefruit rind for my pink grapefruit marmalade — that’s just to soften it up. I’m also making my banana butter because I have been getting a lot of requests for it. I haven’t made a lot this summer, since we can’t have samples at the market because of the pandemic. Samples give customers a chance to taste the jam before buying. People buy what they are familiar with: raspberry, blueberry, strawberry. This morning I made up about 33 jars of West Tisbury Traffic Jam for the Wednesday morning market.

How many jars can you make in one day?

One hundred twenty jars in one day is making me tired. The most I ever did was 160 in one day.

It’s a real process . . . each gets dated on the bottom.

Tell us the process, start to finish.

First you have to get the fruit: some I pick, some I buy. I find elderberries at Priesters Pond, and there are chokecherries ready now, and of course beach plums on the Island. Nectarines, apricots, pears, and bananas I get at the stores. Everything basically goes in the freezer. The ginger pear marmalade takes longer . . . I peel the pears, then cut and chop them. I put in two whole lemons, making sure there are no seeds. I use raw chopped ginger and crystalized ginger soaked in hot water first . . . I have no lo-cal jams. It’s a pretty standard ratio recipe for sugar for all the jams — the only difference is blueberry jam. It’s the same amount of chopped blueberries to sugar. I make 20 different  flavors or more. It’s not just, “Hey, here’s the jam . . .” I have to make sure they set, I have to label them, add the date on the bottom, and add the fabric and ribbon cover.

What are personalized labels?

By special order, I can make jams and jellies with personalized labels for weddings, baby showers, christenings, birthdays — any special event. The label can match the color of the bridesmaid dresses, or become a favorite color of the honoree. I used black labels for a nighttime wedding and it was lovely. I had three special orders lined up but all got postponed until next year due to the virus.

Will you be making jams into retirement?

I don’t think about retirement. I make jams every day. I never get bored.

(508)693-9561; linda@newlanesundries.com

 

Monina Von Opel, Hawkswaney Monina’s Jelly, Chilmark

You make a Russian olive jam?

Yes, at the beginning of October I make Russian olive jam. Many people hate the Russian olive tree on this Island since it’s not native and it’s very invasive. I love the tree because of the way it looks: that wonderful green color and the silver underneath the leaves, and the lovely smell of the blossoms in May. I go and pick the berries and save them from the birds. I think I got the idea from Trudy Taylor who was my jelly teacher; she made jellies. I love the Russian olive jam — it’s an acquired taste. The process to make it is not that different, though sometimes it doesn’t become jelly, no matter what you do. But then it becomes a coulis — a French coulis — which means it runs. l love that — I pour it on chocolate cake, or a poached pear, or a cooked apple.

Do you get many berries?

In my recipe journal I wrote down here:

I picked 13 ½ lbs. of Russian olives on October 5th, 2006 in a record breaking 90 minutes. That’s a lot of Russian olives. That boiled down to 10 cups of pulp and made nine jars of jam.

Do people like it?

I have one son who really loves it, I share it with him. I love it, so I have it on my bread every morning. I don’t sell it. I give it to people who want it.

What got you started making jams?

What started me off was when we bought the house in Chilmark it included this book:  “The Forgotten Arts/Jellies, Jams, Preserves, Conserves, Marmalades,” recipes culled from Yankee Magazine over the years. The former owner included some typed recipes inside, and I thought if he can do it, I can do it. He had a recipe for rosehip and now I make a rosehip jam. I find rosehips along Beach Road, but they grow wild everywhere. It’s called salt spray rose and I pick at the end of August. My big basket takes 15 pounds of rosehips. I put them in one huge pot, simmering the rosehips in water. I rarely put anything else in. If I make grape jelly I put in wine and cinnamon and I call it spiced grape jelly. I pick those wild grapes that grow along the road. I have this wonderful tool that we use to smash all the pulp out and the stems and pits stay behind. We prefer the cloudy, more pulpy jam for a better flavor.

How many types of jams do you make?

I do four, maybe five or six: mint, rosemary, rosehips, grape, Russian olive, and beach plum. Everybody likes rosemary: You boil rosemary, let it sit, use sherry vinegar. You can eat it on bread, but we mostly serve it with lamb or pork. Today we are actually making beach plum because we just picked them and we have to do it. Chris Weller is my helper, she helps me pick and make the jelly. I have some beach plum bushes that I planted but they don’t do very well. I don’t know why. We had trouble finding the berries this year. Sometimes I freeze the berries and I make the jelly in the middle of winter. It’s a procedure — it’s a dedicated day to make jelly.

Your favorite to make?

I like the Russian olive. I enjoy picking them, it’s like milking the tree, a little prickly but not bad. They are tiny berries. I eat them in my cereal. (I’m not sharing my hot spots where I find them.) You see them everywhere . . . you swallow the pits . . . they are sour.

When I’m not hunting for fruit, I’m hunting for art (my two passions) but I’m more often hunting for art.

Who are your jam fans?

If somebody lets me pick on their property they get jam. And I take it as a present when I go for dinner at a friend’s house. People like it. It’s handmade and from the Island.

Hawkswaney Monina’s Rosemary Jelly

That’s our label. Brigitte McCrumb designed the label for us with the bird, resembling her large outdoor sculptures of birds. My husband Edward puts the labels on because he puts them on straight. He’s so precise. The label is the final thing.

(508)645-7879; moninavonopel@gmail.com

 

Roberta Morgan, Flanders Lane, Menemsha

When did you start making the beach plum jelly?

I went with “grampa” [father-in-law, Clarence Morgan] picking berries and “grandma” [mother-in-law, Mary Morgan] showed me how to do it. I got her recipe on a piece of paper. She sold her jelly at her house in Menemsha. She was a good cook. She’d say, “Make sure when you go through the berries get them nice and clean.”

You make the juice, then cook it and add the sugar . . .  with the secret recipe. As long as I don’t forget it. My daughter Barbara helps pick the berries. I told her she has to learn how to cook it. I want her to do it with me one day. To keep the recipe in the family.

The beach plum jelly I started making when I was first married. Way back, my husband Jim and I used to go together to pick the berries. I have a picture of him and he’s smiling with the bucket. He was very good at it, he loved picking. He said it’s like, Making you feel good.”

It’s hard on me now; I can’t lift too many things. I work in the garden — I’m no spring chicken — I’m always telling them, I’m 90! I don’t remember —  I’m in my 80s, anyhow.

One time I made the jelly and it didn’t seem to jell much. Grandma [mother-in-law] said, “You didn’t cook it long enough. You have to cook long enough, but not too long.”

Everybody has something different. I add a little something else to it. It was a little bit of . . . (oh, I can’t  tell the secret). It was something special I put in. I enjoy making it.

Do you make jelly or jam?

Jelly, not jam. I tried jam and I don’t like it. Yes, I have to strain it — a big process. This jar is a little darker than this one — it’s the berries. One year they are really dark. It depends on when you are picking the berries, if they are a little bit sweet. The berries are not as red as when they were picked last year or the year before.

Beach plum juice

This beach plum juice I’m showing you is last year’s. The stuff settles down, I always used to shake it, put it in the kettle to cook, then add the sugar and other things. I didn’t have many berries last year. No, I don’t freeze it! I cook it, pour it into sterilized jars in hot water to be sure it’s sterile, and save the jars in the closet when cool. I use the juice to make jelly later. It’s fun to do. You wouldn’t believe how many of these jars I can fill in a container. I will make at least two batches cooking it. Never undo the cover until it’s time.

Are you picking this year?

Yesterday I picked berries, and one or two were green on one side and ripe on the other. It doesn’t hurt, but it gives it a stronger taste. Down by the camp, I planted two bushes myself years ago, and the big one was loaded. I can’t reach to pick those now. I’ll ask my son to go up after work and go on a ladder . . . “OK, I’ll do it!” He makes me laugh. Little kids could pick, but they want [to eat] them and I need the berries. Last year my great-grandson filled up a little pail: “Oh, no, those are mine, Grandma, I picked them!” OK, take them. No more grandkids picking for me; these bushes are very special.

Where do you sell the jelly?

I sell my jars at the [Ruel] Gallery now. I sold them in my store in Menemsha before that, where I had plenty of room to pile them on the shelves. I have a customer who buys a case. He says, “I love your jelly, it’s so good.” When someone calls and says they need jelly for Christmas, I make it to order. “Bert, can I have a dozen?” OK, I make up a dozen with their name on it. Usually they come and get it by Thanksgiving.

(508)645-2655

 

Lynne Daniels, Old Town Gardens, Edgartown

How did you get started making jellies?

My parents managed the Farmers Market in West Tisbury for 10 years in the early period; during that time my mother made jelly and I used to help her. So I’ve been making it since I was child; I also helped my grandmother. We picked berries, we canned, we smoked stuff — we did the whole nine yards. We could eat off the land if we needed to. My mother made and sold cakes and pies; then jellies became the thing they wanted at the Farmers Market. For years we sold there.

Family fruit

Some of the berries I pick are here, some at our farm in Edgartown. We have 17 acres (nine acres under cultivation). Everything is organic if possible, the beach plums I pick are my own. We grow grapes at the farm, but I also have a friend who has grapes where I pick. I don’t grow pineapple, but I have a ton of strawberries. I make a strawberry pineapple jam. One friend has crabapple trees, so I make two different crabapple jellies, and give them some. We have our own peaches, but we use a lot of peaches; so as my business grows, sometimes I have to buy to fill in what I need for the season.

The berry picker, so the chooser

I don’t make anything that I won’t eat myself. If I don’t like it, I don’t make it.

I’m the berry picker for the farm, and I’m the one that clips back the fruit trees and the berries. We got very few blueberries this year. I only make one jelly with blueberries — that’s crabapple blueberry. I don’t like to pick blueberries so I don’t use them. Stick me in the strawberry patch and raspberry patch as I like those berries, even though I get scratches.

You make it all here in your home?

Yes, I have an inspected residential kitchen. I used to cook my jams at the P.A. Club kitchen. Then I took the profit that I made from selling my jellies and reinvested in my kitchen upgrade. I’m busy; I’m making the jellies and I’m also in the garden all the time. I may need to freeze my berries for a couple weeks if I can’t get to everything. I have no help — it’s like a one-man show.

What’s the most popular flavor?

Beach plum and strawberry rhubarb.

Beach plum is a jelly — you cook it up, strain it, so there are no seeds or pits. It’s a process. I never wanted to chew on a pit. It’s time consuming but I get a system and I go for it. Three pots on the stove, one for straining, tons of sugar. I go to Lobsterville, I always went up there as a kid; if you have friends who are Wampanoag, the tribe can pick too. We have 20 bushes on our property in Edgartown, as some have been there 40 years. We water them so the berries are quite plump.

I’ve always had a following and a call for my zucchini relish, my beach plum jam, and my grape juice. People call year round for these: They beg me, and I make the stuff.

“Aren’t you making grape juice this year?” My son helps and picks some stuff, but he has his own landscape business and also grows oysters, so he is too busy to really help me. But he will taste anything and help himself to the new jam or relish.

Your favorite to make?

The favorite I like to eat is strawberry rhubarb; my second choice is strawberry peach. That’s really popular too. We have a couple hundred plants of rhubarb at the farm, so we have plenty of fruit. I try to cook it up when ripe, then throw it in the freezer for a few weeks if I can’t make it right up. But I try to cook berries up as I pick them.

COVID and the Market

We didn’t join the West Tisbury Farmers Market this year because my father, Robert Daniels, is 96 and I’m 66. It’s too crazy; we really shouldn’t be out there on the front lines. My dad is still growing potatoes on the farm in Edgartown where he lives. I am selling jams and his potatoes at the Oak Bluffs market on Sundays. But my business is down because I don’t have the sales from the West Tisbury market.

Just before the pandemic hit we had problems getting jars from my source in Plymouth. We had to find other suppliers. I get my jars at the end of March or beginning of April so I’m ready for the season. Then I couldn’t get the same covers — the pandemic hit on that issue too.

Do you have other sales?

I have some mail orders so I ship some. The jars make a great gift: I make gift packs that are the right size and weight to be taken on an airplane.

Six stores on the Island want my jams, but I just don’t have the energy. After I retire from my main job, a bookkeeping service, I will reconsider.

51 Road to the Plains, Edgartown; (585)451-3115; seaweedz8@yahoo.com

 

Tom Scott, Oyster Pond Cannery; Quampache Lane, Edgartown

How long have you been making jellies?

I’ve been making jellies since I was a young kid. My mother taught me how to do it when I was young — Mildred Scott in Oak Bluffs. When she was cooking I’d get up on the stool and watch her. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t know how to make it. I always continued to make jelly after that. Back then, It was a chore for her, but now I have it down to a science. My wife Debbie puts the labels on the jars.

What’s the difference between jam and jelly?

Jams include the fruit, jellies don’t have the fruit, just the juice. We do all kinds of jams and jellies. Island grape is coming up next. I pick everything, all wild grown on the Island. Nothing is bought. Deb’s father lives out on the farm here and has a huge Concord grape vine and every year we pick the grapes. Our grandson and our son LOVE it — they won’t eat any other jelly. We have to have it for them. If we buy store bought jelly they won’t eat it.

How did Oyster Pond Farm get started?

It was named Oyster Pond Farm when it was a sheep farm and Deb’s grandparents lived out there with sheep. All her sisters still live here as well as her uncle, father, our two sons, and two grandsons.

Tell us about your neighbors and jelly fans, the Clintons

That’s my photo of Hillary Clinton with a crab net holding my jelly, summer of 1993. We always give the Clintons jelly and they send us thank you letters. They were our neighbors 30 years ago, and we kind of showed them around the Island when they came here; we got to hang out with them at the beach. Every Christmas we send them a box of assorted jams and jellies and they send us something from the White House. Now we get things from the Clinton Foundation.

Your favorite jelly?

Grape, because it is easier to make. My arms are all cut up from the beach plum bushes. Grapes take five minutes to fill up the bag rather than two hours picking beach plums. The birds get the grapes if you don’t cover them, but Deb’s father doesn’t have birds out on the water where his grapes grow. I planted my own blueberry bushes and because we’ve had no acorns in two years, the deer eat everything they never ate before because they are starving. Acorns give the fat to the deer — now there are none, it’s just a cycle.

Making beach plum jelly

I’m getting ready to make one more batch as beach plums are scarce this year. I’ve known where bushes are for 40 years — I go around and check them — but some have disappeared. If you tear the root out, it won’t come back. I notice a lot of bushes are not here anymore. Even out on Beach Road there’s none this year. We had a wet spring of pouring rain that washed off all the pollen, so they didn’t pollinate. If you get a dry spring you’ll get loaded with beach plums. They only grow from N.J. to Maine, from mid-August to the end of September. On the Island, beach plums start in Oak Bluffs first as it’s warmer there. They are loaded in Aquinnah but it’s all tribal land with mosquitos and poison ivy. Picking the beach plums is the hardest part. Better to have a mix of berries, not just blue blueberries — the redder they are the better. Almost hard and red and put some purple in there: you want green, yellow. I mix it all together, then put them in the pot and cook and boil them down. You got to double cheesecloth it, and all the sediment goes to the bottom. Put it through cheesecloth again, let it drip through like coffee. Let it cool before squeezing it, then pick the pits and leaves out. Strain everything else so you only use the juice. Add sugar and pectin, boil it twice, back to a hard boil, let it sit, then take off scum with a spoon, pour into jars. Makes nine jars at a time. I can’t double the recipe, it doesn’t work.

Do you sell the jelly or only give it as gifts?

I used to make it to make money but now it’s costing me to make jelly. My costs have increased: one jar costs about $10 to make. You add it all up, it costs a lot just to make nine jars.

Sometimes I would make 90 jars at a time. Those days are gone. One year I made over 1,200 jars; they were stacked in cases to the ceiling. We’d pick in five gallon buckets. I don’t have a commercial kitchen or a food-handling license. I always made jellies just on the side, always part time. Now it’s just a hobby, a rare thing. We don’t sell commercially anymore, we just give it away as gifts. We’ll give away a lot at Christmas. My mother gets a jar a month (she is 87); Deb’s dad is 92. I gave my son a case already. All our family members and many friends love it.

Who will continue the jelly making tradition?

My kids never were interested. Maybe the oldest grandson will pick it up, we’ll see. He likes to sit here in the kitchen watching me make jelly.

(508)-627-7219; scottsmv@gmail.com