Foibles and first batches

Failure.

The waiting mouth of the open trash can or compost bin.

We’ve all been there. We don’t like to linger in this location often or tell people we’ve visited it even on occasion. Nope, this destination is for other people, right? I’m right there with you. Failing is not something I want to be known for. Samuel Beckett once admonished to “fail again, fail better” and I’ve taken those words to heart. It’s the fear of failure that sometimes stops us from trying to accomplish the exciting and oft-perceived impossible. To tackle the impossible and make it to the other side- that is worth a fail or two along the way.

Take jam.

I am enamored of it.  The alchemy and chemistry of sugar, water, lemon juice and fruit bubbling down into a thickened burbling consistency quickens my pulse. In our house, we treat jam like a guest and give it its just desserts. A smear of jam on a thick crusty slice of levain bread with a pat of unsalted organic butter kind of makes me want to swoon. So it’s no great leap to consider the possibilities of making jam from scratch as something worth trying out.

In my head, before I’d even begun the process I imagined myself standing with a wooden spoon in hand, stirring a simmering pot. Those cooked down spoonfuls of condensed fruit would be something special. Rows of jam jars glistening from the kitchen light hitting them upon opening the pantry would be reminders of joy sequestered for the days ahead.

Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start at the first batch.

A few weeks ago, I shared a recipe for Morado Jam. Walking by a neighborhood bodega, these concord grapes surprised me. Those orbs of bright flavored childhood captivated me from my spot on the sidewalk. Upon leaving the store and tucked into my Strand bookstore canvas bag, I began scheming how to make the most of their precious existence, began mulling how I might extend their life beyond this week and into the future. A basket of figs and a glass of Pinot later, it all came together delightfully in a mish-mash of purple flavors and textures stewing in a heavy pot on the stove top. The first batch filled my kitchen with a heady aroma of figs infusing the flavors of grapes. It made me stop and inhale slowly. After checking temperatures and spooning a tad bit onto the salad plate in the freezer, and notably without a context of what to look for really, I began pouring the jam into the glass jars waiting eagerly on the wire rack. After removing them from the canner, they looked sloopy. When cooled, the liquid sloshed around slowly but that give I’d been looking for had not come. I saved the first batch with the advice of a friend whose expertise in such things was much appreciated. I saved them with pectin.

The second batch thickened into its own purple brocade and I felt ready to give out these jewels, excited about the outcropping of fruit tended by my own hand. We trekked across the city, off to a party in the East Bay. Beck brought a six pack of Ranger IPA and I went armed with a jar of jam. Once we arrived, an elaborate spread was being prepared. Dips from a local Russian market spooned out into small wooden bowls sat next to a plate of tiny slices of pumpernickel.  On the cheese platter sat several artisan cheeses from the farmer’s market next to an oozing slice of honeycomb and two jars of artisan jam. Do you see where this is going?

The host and birthday boy of discerning palate received the homemade jam and hugged me, welcoming us into his apartment. I thought he would keep the jam to enjoy for later, so when he plopped the small jam jar next to the two jars of artisan made jam, I didn’t sweat it. One of the guests decided to try my jam and cracked the seal of the lid, emitting that pleasant popping sound. She stuck a clear plastic knife in the jar and it came up empty. She tried again. Round and round she swirled the knife, much to my rising chagrin and the words “maybe we need a metal knife for this one.” She scooped out a section of jam and nibbled on her cracker quietly.

Uh oh.

I tried to make a subtle beeline for that small jar of purple jam as subtly as I could as guests talked on about working in the Bay Area and Occupy. Up, out of the honey soaked plate, I pulled the jam jar and began mixing it with the metal knife. I probably looked strange to anyone checking out the cheese plate. I wanted to impress the host, his palate, his guests.

Off to twitter I went and sent a private message to a friend who runs an artisan jam company in Florida. I’d given her a jar of jam recently at a conference and she’d remarked the previous week, “I cracked open the Fig this morning, YUM!!! Really tasty with my crusty sourdough bread, thanks so much again for sharing!!” In my private response to her, I thanked her for her comment and asked if she was just being nice. What I’d tasted seemed more like candy than jam. She revealed a great truth:

“The flavor was excellent, it was overcooked in terms of texture, but it was made with love! That’s what’s most important.”

Failure in the kitchen shouldn’t keep us out of it. If anything, I’m comforted by the image of Julia Child in the movie “Julie and Julia” getting frustrated with onion chopping at school and then another scene that shows her with a mountain of onions to chop until she can get this skill down cold. Even the best chefs you could ever imagine have failed at some point in the kitchen. It happens. Then you move on and try again until you’ve mastered whatever feat or food is your teacher in that moment. Failure can lead giving up, but it can also lead to tenacity and that is a worthy personal descriptor. This foible has piqued my desire to try and then try again. To “fail better” next time. I’m just getting started with jam.

And this time I’ve got an extra hand and that same tenacious drive. This time I’m making Buddha’s Hand Marmalade.

buddhas hand

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