Jeremy Corbyn makes his own; Theresa May scrapes the mould off hers; it has become a term for squeezed middle income homes and in 2016 the Department of International Trade tweeted a call for innovation in the sector with a view to exporting to France. Jam, an ancient way of preserving fruit with sugar, seems to have found itself embroiled in politics over the last few years.
But just why is jam so woven into the British consciousness, especially in times of crisis?
Rebecca Earle, food historian from the University of Warwick, explores jam’s back-story.
Recently I went to a concert to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Warwickshire branch of the Women’s Institute. It was a jolly event featuring a brass band, an a cappella choir singing imaginative arrangements from classic musicals, and, as a finale, a group called The Retros who got everyone bopping around to La Bamba at the front of the hall. But there wasn’t any jam. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, even though, in retrospect, it is hard to see how jam could have slotted into the programme.
The jam connection
It’s just that the WI is so closely associated with jam. Its own website devotes whole pages to explaining the ‘jam connection’, as well as providing recipes for jams, marmalades and preserves. Making jam has been a defining activity for the WI from its founding in 1915. During the First World War the Board of Agriculture allocated a steady supply of sugar to the WI for the specific purpose of making jam, which was identified as an important national priority. By teaching jam-making and other domestic skills, insisted the Ministry of Agriculture in 1920, the WI ‘helps each woman to realise her individual duty to the community’. Between 1940 and 1945, the WI preserved some twelve million pounds of fruit, again drawing on direct government support.
Other moments of smaller historic importance have also been marked by a flurry of jam-making. During the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee, the WI went into jam over-drive, according to the cookery-writer Jane Grigson, in order to produce the quantities of damson cheese needed to accompany the roast saddle of lamb served at a state banquet for King Birendra of Nepal. The king had ‘acquired a taste for English food at Eton, as a schoolboy’, which, Grigson observed in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, ‘is more than most of the English do at their schools’.
Jam of course long predates the WI. Roman cookery books from the first century CE offer recipes, and the notion of preserving fruit in a mixture of honey or sugar is an ancient one. Jam did not however become a common foodstuff until the spread of plantation slavery in Europe’s American colonies made sugar cheap and accessible to ordinary people. As the price of slave-produced sugar fell, so did the cost of jam. Sugar’s great historian Sidney Mintz noted in Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, that Britain’s industrial revolution was fuelled by heavily-sweetened tea and white bread spread with sugary preserves, which provided the proletariat with the calories (if not the nutrients) they needed to sustain eighteen-hour days in a textile factory. Cheap, industrial jam is part of the legacy of slavery.
Home-made jam tends to evoke more positive memories of family and the small pleasures of domesticity. Such jam, writes Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the introduction to the The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, ‘epitomise the values at the heart of a well-run, contented kitchen’. Making jam is the sort of thing we imagine domestic goddesses such as Nigella doing on weekends. Nonetheless, as the WI’s wartime jam-making reminds us, home-made jam reflects historical processes just as much as a jar of Tesco Everyday Value Strawberry Jam (61g of sugar per 100g of jam).
My grandmother’s strawberry freezer jam, which I gobbled happily in her Philadelphia kitchen in the 1970s, was made possible by the massive expansion in electrification, advertising and the technologies of the cold chain that brought fridge-freezers to homes across the USA. By the 1950s, writes the historian Susanne Friedberg in her book Fresh. A Perishable History, ‘rising affluence, suburbanization, the teaching of ‘scientific housekeeping,’ and the marketing of kitchen appliances as labor-saving status symbols’ combined to make the United States ‘the world’s most thoroughly ‘refrigerated society’. My grandmother’s freezer jam was one result - the WI offers a similar recipe on its website.
Today, home-made jam sits uncomfortably between our appreciation of artisan food and our denigration of refined sugar as the dietary equivalent of crack cocaine. Warwick’s own Jam Grove , one of the initiatives of the Food GRP, recommends the orchard as an ideal location for communing with nature, but stops short of offering recipes.
If you’d nonetheless like to try your hand at making jam, you could do worse than Warwick alumna Abigail Browning’s ‘Super Easy Student Jam', featured in the Warwick student cookbook, Simple Scoff.
Or there’s always the WI.
 Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture 27:1 (1920), 207 (quote); ‘What is the Jam Connection?’, Women’s Institute, https://www.thewi.org.uk/faqs/what-is-the-jam-connection; and Caitríona Beaumont, Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women's Movement in England, 1928-64 (Oxford, 2015).
28 February 2019
Rebecca Earle is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. She is a historian of food, and of the cultural history of Spanish America and early modern Europe, interested in how ordinary, every-day cultural practices such as eating or dressing, or even using postage stamps, shape how we think about the world.
Terms for republishing
The text in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).