On Moldy Jam

Spores from green mold growing on an orange. Image source: Wikipedia.

If ever there was a measure of how bored us non-essential types are under quarantine let me note the furor over the leaked photo depicting a moldy tub of jam sold by a local restaurant here in Los Angeles. I’m not going to go into detail but if you’re curious Eater LA did a story on the initial crisis, the apology and the more important issue of labor practices in the restaurant business. That’s all out of my lane. But we can, so to speak, open the third eye on our own moldy jams.

Here’s what my go-to source on canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, has to say about mold in your jam and how to prevent it,

Even though sugar helps preserve jellies and jams, molds can grow on the surface of these products. Research now indicates that the mold which people usually scrape off the surface of jellies may not be as harmless as it seems. Mycotoxins have been found in some jars of jelly having surface mold growth. Mycotoxins are known to cause cancer in animals; their effects on humans are still being researched.

Because of possible mold contamination, paraffin or wax seals are no longer recommended for any sweet spread, including jellies. To prevent growth of molds and loss of good flavor or color, fill products hot into sterile Mason jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace, seal with self-sealing lids, and process 5 minutes in a boiling-water canner Correct process time at higher elevations by adding 1 additional minute per 1,000 ft above sea level. If unsterile jars are used, the filled jars should be processed 10 minutes. Use of sterile jars is preferred, especially when fruits are low in pectin, since the added 5-minute process time may cause weak gels.

One additional tip: remove the rings once you’re done canning. Jam that leaks out during processing can creep under the ring and go moldy. The rings are just for processing and transport. Once the jars are on the shelf you don’t need them.

Initially, the restaurant in this scandal took to Instagram to defend themselves offering the excuse that their jam is low sugar and more susceptible to mold and that it’s the “same types of mold that develop on some cheese, charcuterie, dry aged beef, and lots of other preserved foods.”

As to the first point, it’s perfectly fine to make a low sugar jam but if you’re going to can it you need to use a lab tested recipe. Alternately, you can refrigerate low sugar jams but you need to use them before they go moldy.

As to the molds on cheeses and other preserved foods, the question of fungal cultures on these products are only now being studied using new genetic testing technology (1). There are beneficial fungal cultures as well as toxic ones that can develop on preserved foods. In short, our understanding of food safety issues of these types of fungal-preserved foods is evolving and complex. However, while fungal cultures are intrinsic to the preservation of certain foods such as blue cheeses, fungal cultures don’t belong on jam. The restaurant has since promised to follow food safety practices regarding the product they package as well as what they serve in-house.

Inner Mold
Why, in the midst of a global pandemic crisis did we all get so caught up in the story of a restaurant with moldly jam? Part of it is the growing resentment against the sort of folks (affluent, aging Silver Lake hipsters such as me) who can afford a $9 slice of toast at this particular cafe while thousand of people in Los Angeles are facing eviction or already homeless.

But there’s more to it than just that. In my weaker moments I will sometimes binge old episodes of Gordan Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. I’m not proud of this and after falling into Kitchen Nightmare hole I wonder what attracts me to a show that’s so repetitive. Every single episode follows the same trajectory: in the first half we see a failed restaurant owner wallowing in laziness and expired tubs of chicken wings. In the second half Daddy Ramsey comes along to yell profanities (in the American version ’cause that’s how we roll here) and redeem the fallen owner.

Perhaps Kitchen Nightmares holds up a mirror to our own moldy souls while offering the promise of a quasi-religious redemptive cycle. We’re all caught up in the shiny distraction of the internet and the latest Netflix series while stuff rots in the kitchen and we neglect our chores and those around us. This is part of what makes this jam scandal so rubbernecky in the midst of much more serious problems. Unfortunately, Daddy Ramsey ain’t gonna drop by and whip us all into shape. We’re going to have to join together to un-jam our moldy jam.

The New Homemade Kitchen

I have many fond memories of teaching bread baking classes for the late Joseph Shuldiner’s cheekily named Institute of Domestic Technology. Joseph had a unique formula for the curriculum of the IDT. I’d summarize as “stuff that you’d never think of doing from scratch but once you find out how easy it is your life will be transformed.” In addition to the aforementioned bread baking, the IDT offered classes in mustard, cheese making, jam making, coffee roasting, cocktail crating and much more.

Joseph gathered the recipes and collected wisdom of these classes into his posthumously published book The New Homemade Kitchen: 250 Recipes and Ideas for Reinventing the Art of Preserving, Canning, Fermenting, Dehydrating, and More just released this month by Chronicle. The section on cocktails is a good example of the IDT’s methods. Yes, you get a Martini recipe. But you’ll also be making your own vermouth and it will be easier than you think.

Then there’s the life changing chapter on coffee roasting. One of the perks of teaching at the IDT was getting to sit in on the other classes. This was how I learned to roast my own coffee in a Whirley-Pop roaster. Like a lot of IDT obsessions, roasting your own coffee simultaneously up-scales and bomb proofs your pantry. Green coffee can sit around for a long time and knowing how to roast it is a useful skill in our current crappening. In short, this book is very quarantine friendly both in the sense of having skills handy when supply chains are broken and having something more productive to do than binging Netflix.

In addition to coffee you’ll find chapters on pickles and preserves, baking, dairy, meat and fish, cocktails, fermentation and dehydration. You’ll also learn how to make your own mustard, ketchup, harissa, sriracha, preserved lemons, vanilla extract and much more.

Joseph was a gifted artist, designer, activist and photographer and the book reflects his ability to represent and explain, in clear language, information that can seem intimidating. I learned a lot about how to teach from working for Joseph. Many of the classes took place at the Altadena home of Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel. They tended to be day long affairs with a lunch served to students and an after-party for the instructors. At the end of the day, over glasses of wine, we would review the classes we taught and figure out ways to make information clearer. Joseph was a team player with a thoughtful leadership style. I can still hear his laugh and miss him greatly. This book, for me, is a kind of time capsule of those happy days teaching at the IDT that felt more like attending a lively party than work. And I have this book to remember Joseph’s joyous spirit and knowledge.

RIP Joseph Shuldiner

I’m very sorry to report the passing of designer, food educator and author Joseph Shuldiner. I worked for Joseph teaching bread classes at his Institute of Domestic Technology. We had a lot of fun on those long class days and always shared some food, wine and conversation afterwards. His gentle coaching over those glasses of wine taught me a lot about how to structure a class and how to impart complex information.

Joseph was a gifted artist and designer with a passion for food. He was the author of a terrific cookbook called Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living. He had a second book due to come out next year, The New Homemade Kitchen. He went on to oversee, along with Kevin West, the transformation of Grand Central Market. He also founded and ran the Altadena Farmers’ Market. Unlike many market managers, Joseph made sure that the vendors actually grew the food they sold. I had the privilege of going on a trip with Joseph to inspect the farms. That trip also concluded with Joseph’s good humor and many glasses of wine.

Joseph, you will be missed.

Olive Questions

Lacking an Italian or Greek grandmother, I’ve got to crowdsource my olive curing questions. So, my dear Root Simple readers: have you cured olives? What method did you use and how did they turn out?

The Frantoio olive tree that I planted in the parkway a few years ago produced a bumper crop of olives this year. Last year every single olive hosted olive fruit fly maggots. This summer, to reduce the olive fruit fly population I put some torula yeast lures in a McPhail trap in the tree and removed any fruit that had any signs of infestation. I change out the yeast tabs every month. The strategy seems to have greatly reduced the infestation. I lost probably around a third of the olives but had more than enough un-maggoty olives to fill three half-gallon jars. Today I plan on sweeping up any olives on the ground and removing any remaining olives from the tree to, as much as possible, further knock the olive fruit fly population.

Contents of the McPhail trap.

I chose a brine method to cure the olives and followed the recipe in the informative UC Davis publication, Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling. With any luck I should have olives in three to six months. The Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog suggests changing out the brine periodically, which leads to more questions for readers: do you change out your brine? How did you season the brine?

While my attempt at growing annual vegetables was a disaster this year, let me say how thankful Kelly and I are to have planted fruit trees ten years ago. The most successful: pomegranates, figs and olives.

If you’d like to try curing olives, but don’t have any trees of your own, you can always forage them. In the past month I’ve spotted fruiting olive trees in Hollywood on a side street adjacent to the Kaiser complex, in a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. Just don’t use the scarred fruit as that’s the sign of maggots.

RIP Chef Ernest Miller and Dr. Tracy McFarland

Ernest Miller
It is with great sadness that I relay the news of the passing of chef Ernest Miller and veterinarian Dr. Tracy Elizabeth McFarland. Both were guests on previous episodes of the Root Simple podcast.

I had the great privilege of taking chef Miller’s Master Food Preserver training. Chef Miller’s knowledge of food preservation and safety was encyclopedic. Whenever I had a question I’d send Ernie an email. He was an accomplished chef, teacher, Navy veteran and a kind and gracious person who volunteered countless hours of his time. There is no replacement for him.

The Celebration of Life for Ernest Miller is on Monday October 1, and will begin at 12:30-4pm at Rose Hills Mortuary Visitation Center located at 3888 Workman Mill Road in Whittier and will conclude at 5pm-7pm at the LDS Chapel located at 7505 Garvalia Ave in Rosemead. His brother-in-law has set up a memorial fund to pay for funeral expenses.

Dr. McFarland’s was the most talented and dedicated veterinarian I have ever met. Her diagnostic and surgical skill were legendary. The last time I saw her back in April, for an appointment for one of our cats, she talked about the many times she would head back to her cat-only clinic, late at night, to check on patients. Like Ernie, she was one of those people completely dedicated to her craft, which was all about reducing the suffering of our animal companions. When she entered into hospice earlier this month she posted the following message to Facebook:

What a privilege it has been to welcome your cats to our family, I have loved every minute. I wish I could tell you personally how much each one of you mean to me. Some of you may know that I have been very sick lately. I’m at a point in my life now that God is calling me home. I want you to know I am well taken care of, comfortable and surrounded by my family. I wish you all much love, good health, good humor, and the strength to get through this time. My wonderful team will be there for you during this transition and through the times ahead. The Cat Doctor & Friends will continue my dream of providing honest, compassionate care with integrity. With much love and appreciation, your friend and sister Dr. Tracy.

A memorial service for Dr. Tracy will be held this Saturday September 29th at 10am in the worship center at Grace Baptist Church located at 22833 Copper Hill Drive in Santa Clarita. See the Cat Doctor and Friends Facebook page for information on charities you can donate to in honor of Dr. Tracy.

You can listen to Dr. McFarland on episodes 36 and 46 of our podcast. You can hear Ernie discuss pressure canning on episode 14.