Strawberry Jam, Part I: Pick-Your-Own

Strawberry jam: the first recipe in food preservation cookbooks, the poster child for all things homemade, and glistening ruby red in quilted glass jars and wrapped with a ribbon of twine.

And you can make it with tools you probably have in your kitchen already.

Now, baskets of still-earthy vegetables from the farmer’s market seem to provide the standard imagery for the local food movement, but my goal is to eat as locally as possible all year long, which involves learning how to preserve food when it is plentiful to get through months when it is not. And while jam is not the most necessary of foods, it is a great starting point if you want to learn to can. Which I do.

I’m sure you can tell where this is going: I made some jam! Okay; I made a lot of jam. So let’s rewind from this spoonful of crimson goodness, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Pick-Your-Own Strawberries

A key ingredient of strawberry jam, as you might imagine, is a hefty amount of fresh strawberries. You can go about procuring these berries however you want, but I chose to find a local farm where I could pick them myself.

The premise of a pick-your-own farm, or a “u-pick”, as they are commonly called, is simple: a grower plants their crop, then instead of harvesting it and selling it in turquoise paper baskets, they invite customers to the farm to pick it themselves at a much lower price. While most pick-your-owns also offer some pre-picked goods for sale at the farm stand, the labor burden is significantly reduced since the majority of harvesting is done by the customers themselves. They get free labor, you get a good price on berries, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Unless you are living in the heart of a very large and very urban city, there’s a pretty good chance you can find a pick-your-own farm surprisingly close by. Waller Family Farm, my farm of choice for this particular excursion, is only a few miles away from my apartment, just outside of the Durham city limits. As a kid I couldn’t really imagine that urban and rural landscapes could co-exist so closely, so this kind of proximity still amazes and delights me.

There are not many occasions for which I’ll set a 7:30am alarm on a Saturday, but spending a couple of hours in a humid field is one of them. Going early beats the heat, the crowds and the bugs, and since I’ve made the afternoon mistake in the past, I arrived at the farm with a few other early birds to pick the first berries of the day.

Waller Family Farm grows Chandler strawberries, a variety known for producing large, firm berries that ripen to a brilliant red. They are gorgeous, juicy and delicious.

For anyone out there who might grumble about paying $4 for a quart of fresh-picked strawberries at the farmer’s market, I encourage you to take a couple of hours picking some yourself. Even an early, post-rain morning quickly became hot and humid, and by the time I had filled my boxes (which took about 2 hours), my back and knees were quite sore. But the extra effort of picking these berries yourself makes them even sweeter.

All twenty-one pounds of them.

Have you ever been to a pick-your-own farm? Wanna try one? is a great resource for learning about farms all over the country that will let you venture into their fields to pick your own strawberries, blueberries, apples, pumpkins, peas… you get the idea. Take some friends, your kids, or just yourself, and become a little more connected to your food and the land it comes from. It’s totally worth your time.

Coming next: Strawberry Jam, Part II: Preserving