Rosy pink peach juice and cane sugar roil together in a copper jam pot, tight bubbles tapping out a steady beat on the stove top like a good, hard summer rain. Chunks of O’Henry peaches bobble at the surface among the foam, while steamy puffs of fragrant air linger in my kitchen.
“That looks great from here!” says Shakirah Simley’s encouraging voice as she peers into my pot from my laptop.
It’s canning season during a pandemic.
In a normal year, my inner granny gets a thrill from canning seasonal produce for my family and friends. When I open my pantry and view those rainbow rows of jam, pickle and syrup jars, I see jars of possibility: PB&Js for my kids, gifts for friends birthdays, new baby care packages or just what my cocktail was missing. This year, I’ve found canning to be a particular comfort. I may not see my parents or send my kids to school for six months, but at least I’ll have the family’s favorite pickled cherries.
That’s how I found myself virtually learning to make preserves from Simley, who also goes by Shak. With all that’s going on in the world, I wanted to deepen my preservation practice and its connection to the community, and she’s the perfect person for both. She’s a self-taught preserver who started a socially conscious jam company, Slow Jams, at 22. She then became Bi-Rite Market’s canner-in-residence, where she created recipes for their private-label jams, pickles and preserves and taught canning classes at 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite’s nonprofit cooking school.
Simley’s style of preserving isn’t precious; it’s about self sufficiency and community. It fits in with her background of community organizing around food equity, including Nourish Resist, a people of color (POC)-run social justice group she helped create. After Bi-Rite, she decided to work in local government to help create a more equitable food system and is currently the director of the Office of Racial Equity for the city and county of San Francisco.
These days, Simley is not making as much jam, but when she does, it’s late at night and her way to destress. Today, we’re making her summer peach preserves. “Jam is crushed fruit that’s cooked down, it’s thinner,” she says from her San Francisco apartment, while cooking over a portable burner so I can see her in her tiny kitchen.
“Preserves are spoonable pieces of fruit that you can see in the jar and break down on your delicious toast. I’m thinking of you opening this jar in December or January…and thinking this tastes like summer.” Aside from fruit prep, preserves and jam are cooked the same way, quickly over high heat. As a diehard jam fan, she’s already sold me.
Simley, who completed the Master Food Preserver course through the University of California’s Cooperative Extension program, likes to cook her stone fruit before adding sugar because she says the sugar freezes the fruit in place, and we want soft fruit. We simmer skin-on, chopped peaches with water to release juices and soften, a bubbling, melting sunset.
Shak’s Preserves and Jam Tips
Pot: A heavy bottomed, non-reactive (stainless steel or copper) pot is best, especially for high-acid fruits. The best pots have a wide top and narrow bottom with sloped sides, which allows for more evaporation.
Pectin: Pectin thickens jams and preserves, but Simley prefers the natural pectin in fruit skin (unripe fruit has more). “If you rely too heavily on commercial pectin, you aren’t learning key parts about the jam making process,” she says.
Fruit: High quality, seasonal, farm-direct fruit is a must, ideally organic or no spray. Stone fruit should be heavy, fragrant and give slightly when you hold it. Avoid cut, bruised or browning fruit, or split pits, which might introduce bacteria, mold or microorganisms into the preserves.
Acid: Citrus juice, vinegar or citric acid adds bite and makes the jam safer by inhibiting mold, bacteria and microorganism growth, while zest adds a floral note. Eureka lemons are good for acid, Meyer for flavor.
Cooking: Jams and preserves are cooked on high and fast heat to preserve the natural fruit flavor. Add spices in a cheesecloth bag at the beginning of cooking, but use extracts, herbs and alcohol at the end for more flavor.
Help: Master Food Preservers from the University of California Cooperative Extension Master program answer any questions you may have. http://cesanmateo.ucanr.edu/
— Leena Trivedi-Grenier
Part of her passion for fruit comes from growing up without access to it. She was raised with four siblings by her single mother in Harlem, a food desert. Simley remembers in summer, her mother, who was a substance abuse case manager, would occasionally bring home fresh fruit from vendors in wealthier neighborhoods. She grew up with Welch’s jam, so coming to the Bay Area was like a wonderland of seasonal fruit she had never tried before. The first time she made her own jam, she was hooked. This is what jam could be.
Simley explains that her superpower is picking perfect fruit: She pays attention to details like how the same fruit tastes different throughout the season. Peaches that come in around late August, for instance, are dense with sweet and acidic flavors. Earlier in the season, she says they have more water.
She also doesn’t like using super ripe fruit, which I thought was a requirement for jam and preserves. Instead, a mix of just ripe and slightly underripe fruit makes for her ideal mix of sweet and acid. She always tastes the fruit before canning. “You want the best fruit because you can’t put lipstick on a pig,” Simley says. “If it tastes like crap fresh, it’ll taste like crap in jam.” But also, with any water bath canning, she says to avoid fruit with bruising, browning or wormholes because you don’t want to introduce any microorganisms, mold or bacteria that can make your food unsafe.
We stir sugar into the cooked peaches until it dissolves, then bring it to a rolling boil. It gets darker as the blushed skin bleeds into the syrup, making it jewel toned. As jam or preserves cooks, you’ll have two different types of bubbles, she tells me. “You’ll go from these tighter, fast bubbles to these slow, big ralump ralump bubbles,” she says laughing, referring to the noise that the bubbles make.“That’s what I call them, that’s what they are.”
For her, canning is about sharing your jars and your privilege. She learned to take care of the community at home, where she watched her mother support people with HIV, which was ravaging New York City during her childhood. Her grandmother also worked as a social worker, and was a Black Panther and community leader. Canning makes a lot, so sharing makes sense.
“If you’re healthy, why not make care packages and check in on neighbors and elderly residents?” she says.
At Slow Jams, she offered jam making classes to anyone who couldn’t afford her jam, and helping people preserve their backyard fruit. These are all things that home preservers can do, swapping in-person canning with a phone or laptop and video chat.
Simley believes that community support should extend to the people who make our jam and food possible. For Slow Jams, she sourced fruit from urban farmers, women and POC farmers. Our food industry and agriculture are suffering because of the pandemic, so she suggests shopping at farmers’ markets, which keep farms open, and supporting traditionally marginalized farmers.
But jamming alone isn’t enough. Simley stressed the importance of voting for policies that support communities of color on the state and local level, and holding local leaders accountable for supporting POC essential workers, including farm workers who have been put in unsafe conditions during the pandemic. Issues such as housing and universal healthcare need to be addressed at a larger level, she says.
“There is a person behind that peach in your jar of jam. What do they need?” Simley asks. “As much as we want to fill our pantries, we also have to pay attention to policies.”
We finish the class by testing the set of our preserves with a spoon test. We dip our spatulas into the preserves, run our finger through the jam, and see if the two sides run together again (not set) or stay separate (set).
“People were always intrigued by me as a Black jam maker,” she says, even though there’s a long history of canning and preserving in African American food culture. People think of an older white woman in the midwest with gingham jar covers, she explains, or a young white woman with impossible-to-reproduce recipes. As she recently told The New York Times, she thinks it’s because systemic racism holds back Black jam makers, an issue that was raised by a recent controversy at Sqirl restaurant in Los Angeles that in part involved the owner being accused of taking credit for Black and POC workers’ recipes in her cookbook on jam.
“Here you have me with my Afro and social justice approach and advocacy work I was doing…I was a little more democratic.”
The only Black canning resource she knows of is the second cookbook ever written by a Black American, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” (1881). Abby Fisher was a former illiterate slave who became a multimillionaire with her jam and pickle empire in San Francisco, so her book was full of jam recipes. Fisher is a huge inspiration to Simley
I leave the jam session feeling inspired. Thoughtful jam and preserves making can go beyond putting up your favorite fruit and help preserve the vulnerable parts of our community. Simley reminds me, “Preservation is supposed to be selfless.”
Leena Trivedi-Grenier is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area and winner of the 2020 Association of Food Journalists award for best food essay and second place for best column. Email: [email protected] Instagram @leenaeats Twitter: @Leena_Eats
Shak’s Peach Preserves
Makes 8 to 9 half-pint jars
5½ pounds peaches, just ripe or a mix of just ripe/slightly underripe, washed, unpeeled and chopped into ½ inch dice
2 pounds organic evaporated cane sugar
2 ounces fresh squeezed Eureka lemon juice, plus up to 1 ounce more to balance (3 medium lemons or 2 large)
Instructions: Place a small plate in the freezer. Discard any pieces of fruit that are bruised or browning, then add peaches to a large, wide, thick bottomed nonreactive pot. Add water to slightly cover the bottom of the pot, around ½ cup, to prevent the skins and fruit from sticking.
Bring to a simmer over high heat, stirring as needed, until the fruit is tender and breaks down when gently pushed against the side of the pot, about ten minutes. It will release its juices, and the skin will be soft and disintegrating. Remove from the heat. Add sugar and mix until fully dissolved. Add the lemon juice and stir.
Bring the preserves to a boil on high heat. Once rapidly boiling, lower heat slightly to medium high (it should still boil vigorously) and cook until the setting point is reached, stirring only occasionally to prevent sticking and burning, about 20 to 25 minutes. Do a spoon test periodically: stick a spatula or spoon into the preserves and pull it out. If the mixture is thin and runs off quickly, it needs more time. If it drops off slowly and two drops run together before falling, it’s set. You can also dip the spoon in the preserves and run your finger through it. If the lines run together again, it needs more time. If the lines stay separate, it’s done. Remove from heat when it’s starting to set. Skim any foam from the top of your jam.
Remove the plate from the freezer, add a spoonful of jam and let sit for 1 minute. The jam should move slowly when the plate is tilted, it should be thick and taste balanced. If it’s too thin, cook it for a few minutes longer. You can also add more lemon juice if it needs more acidity, along with a big pinch of flaky sea salt or a slightly smaller pinch of kosher salt. At this point you can store the jam in clean jars in the refrigerator for up to 1 month, or water bath can it to make it shelf stable.
To water bath can: Fill a canner or large pot with a trivet with water and bring to a boil. Warm clean jars by simmering them in the canner for a few minutes or running the jars through the dishwasher and leaving them inside until you’re ready to can. (A hot jar is less likely to crack when it goes into boiling water.) Wash lids with soapy water and dry. Ladle hot jam into hot jars with a funnel. Put the pieces of fruit in the jars first, then add the liquid. Using a nonmetallic utensil like a chopstick, stick it in the jar and move in a circle around the edges to remove air bubbles. Make sure each jar has ¼ inch of headspace at the top.
Wipe the rims of the jars clean, cover and screw band down until resistance is met, then continue until it is fingertip tight (too tight or loose and it won’t properly seal).
Place hot packed jars in the canning pot with water at full rolling boil, ensuring that all jars are covered by at least 1 inch of water. Cover canner, return to a boil and process for 10 minutes. Shut off heat, remove the canner’s lid and let jars sit in pot for another 5 minutes.
Remove jars without tilting. Cool upright on a clean towel undisturbed for 24 hours. Check seals and store any unsealed jars in the fridge. Label and store sealed jars in a cool, dark and dry place. Eat within 1 year.