By Jill Warren Lucas
Standing near the neat rows of winter crops growing at the InterFaith Food Shuttle Farm off Tyron Road in Raleigh, Ben Filippo of This & That Jam is getting ready for another community canning workshop. He rolls up be sleeves and out peeks a tattoo of the Lorax, the Dr. Seuss character who first warned about destructive progress that threatened the world’s natural bounty and beauty in 1971.
“Unless someone like you…cares a whole awful lot…nothing is going to get better…It’s not,” he said, quoting the Lorax’s simple credo long before anyone heard of global warming.
“It’s sad to me that so many kids don’t know who the Lorax is anymore,” said Filippo, who operates This & That Jam with his fiancé, Ali Rudel, and works as a teacher assistant in the Chapel Hill school system. “We can never forget how important it is that we keep connected with the land.”
Saturday’s workshop, a free class conducted for a handful of young volunteers and several Congolese families that participate in programs at the IFFS Farm, was the ultimate demonstration of farm-to-table sustainability. Using beets that were just pulled from the ground, Ben led an encouraging session that emphasized the simplicity and economic smarts of canning.
“How many of you have canned before?” he asked, as one tentative hand was raised. “How about beets? Have you all had fresh beets?” Not a single hand went up.
“Poor beets. Such a small population of people use them,” he said, scrubbing them free of loose dirt before placing them in a large pot to boil on a camp stove, the first step in turning them into jam. “I blame canned beets, which can be terrible. Fresh beets are a whole different thing.”
Ben and Ali, who bakes bread for workshops and this day prepares an impromptu lunch of sautéed beet greens, are committed to spreading the gospel of sustainability.
“The only way to have a sustainable food future is to teach people how easy it is to make great food,” said Ali, who is days away for delivering the couple’s first child. “It’s important, but it’s also fun. I’m especially happy when we have families come to workshops with their children.”
Participants took seats at picnic tables set with colorful cutting boards, peelers and knives. With ruby-stained fingers, they chatted about how they’d never seen a “real” beet before and how much fun they were having.
“I go to farmer’s markets and see all these beautiful vegetables, but I never know what to do with them,” said one teen as her friends agreed. “This is so cool. I want to try a little of everything now.”
Children were equally enthusiastic, sniffing spices and excitedly taking turns stirring the bubbling brew. They cooed with wonder as the jars were filled and delighted when they heard the distinctive pops as the sealed jars cooled in the afternoon breeze. Participants carried still-warm jam home with copies of the recipe and assurance that they could ask questions later by email.
While Ben emphasizes the simplicity of production to encourage the group, he in fact conducted extensive research to develop the beet jam recipe. He studied food anthropology at Tufts University and has traveled extensively to learn about the deep roots individual foods have in various cultural traditions.
He based today’s recipe on an eingemacht, a preparation popular among World War II-era Jewish immigrants. He tweaked it to meet modern USDA standards, skipping the blanched almonds, which might have caused spoilage.
“You never really hear about people getting botulism anymore, but why chance it?” he said cheerfully. “Once you have a little experience with preserving, you learn that you can tweak recipes pretty easily.”
Delicious dolloped on fresh-baked bread, beet jam would make a bistro-worthy panini paired with goat cheese and arugula – and perhaps some rare roast beef for those who indulge. Ben suggested it also would be a welcome boost to plain cooked rice.
Creativity is a hallmark of This & That Jam, which Ben and Ali first established when they lived in Brooklyn. With flavors like Honey Pepita Butter and Tangelo Curd with Sea Salt, they regularly sold out of the supply they brought to the popular Brooklyn Flea Market.
They moved to Chapel Hill in June to start their family, and have just announced the rebirth of their fledging business as well. This & That Jam is offering a clever twist on the concept of community-supported agriculture, or CSA, by launching a JSA that will provide members a jar of seasonal jam or jelly each month, starting in January.
“It’s a smart business model,” shrugged Ben, who also is working with local vendors to carry their products. “We believe in small-batch production, but we hope to have a bigger impact over time.”
While their signature flavors are propriety secrets, Ben and Ali post most of their workshop recipes online, including beet jam and a colorful purple pumpkin butter. For more information, or to sign up for the JSA, visit http://thisandthatjam.com/.
Jill Warren Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her on Twitter at @jwlucasnc.