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.

Saturday Linkages: In a Jam

My shop uniform.

To unite the country, we need honesty and courage

Why the Internet Is Blowing Up About LA’s Most Infamous Jam Maker

There’s No I in Jam: Sqirl Wrestles With the Sticky Question of Who Really Owns a Recipe

The Billionaire Behind Efforts to Kill the U.S. Postal Service

Bear whisperer out of a job

Jet engine becomes unique camper

An alternative to Ipé

Museum of Material Failures

RIP Michael Brooks

I can’t think of a time in my life when I’ve been so wracked with grief for someone I never met. My favorite podcaster, Michael Brooks, died unexpectedly on Monday of a blood clot at the young age of 36. I’m heartbroken.

There’s an intimacy to podcasting and radio, to the regular sound of someone’s voice in your life even if that voice is thousands of miles away. Micheal kept me company for years during my chores. He was a rare talent, a democratic socialist with a sense of humor and an internationalist with a deep empathy for working class people all over the world. That empathy was born of experience. Michael grew up knowing what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from and to get evicted from your house as a child. He was also the only person I know who could talk Gramsci and basketball.

I have no idea how I found his podcast but I remember the moment that kept me listening. He and a guest were discussing spirituality. Rather than the dismissiveness that you might expect from the old school left, Michael thought that we needed to integrate spirituality and politics. In a memorial show on the Majority Report, his sister Lisha Brooks recounted their last conversation. Michael was, as he often did, talking about spirituality. As he asked in that last conversation, “Why allow Steve Bannon to have a monopoly on the Bhagavad Gita?” Amen.

I have to be honest that I’ve been very gloomy of late and often find myself doomscrolling the covid news and the latest twitter outrage. I took great comfort every week in Michael’s honesty and insight about the trouble we’re in combined with his humor. Michael was only getting started. I hoped that, as I grew old, I would see him become a major media personality and politician and a voice for working people. His passing is a tremendous loss.

I have a lot to learn from his example. My discussion of politics on this blog has fallen into two categories. Early on I was snarky, arrogant and mean. Then I just clammed up while, all around me, an ideology of toxic individualism has created the terrible crisis we are now in. My writing beat, what has, for lack of a better term, been called “urban homesteading” is poisoned by that individualism which manifests in a concept of self sufficiency whose ultimate destination is a lonely existence in a doomstead bunker. I’ve always tried to point out that we’re all in this together, that we need to build up our households and our communities. It’s not one or the other.

Michael was just beginning to formulate a strategy that would normalize ideas like medicare for all and the plain, decent notion that we should respect and take care of working people in this country. He said to his sister in that last conversation that he felt that we needed to, “build a world where all can listen to each other without turning to violence. This doesn’t mean that we give up the fight for justice. We need to fight that fight more skillfully.”

Sheltered

A page from Shelter.

Maker, builder, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn left a great comment on my rambling review of the documentary Spaceship Earth. Lloyd said (in reference to the title of Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth), “In 1973, in our book Shelter, I wrote “Calling Earth a spaceship is like stepping out into a clear night in New Mexico and saying, “Wow, it looks just like the planetarium.”

If you aren’t familiar with Lloyd’s work you should check out his blog and buy his books! I have a vintage copy of Shelter on my workshop bookshelf.

Kelly’s Office Furniture in Progress

I had a request for some work-in-progress photos of Kelly’s office furniture and, instead of feeding the Instagram beast I thought I’d put them on the blog.

Kelly requested a bookshelf, three cabinets and a desk for her shed office (we are lucky to have a 100 year old shed in the backyard that I have restored over the years we’ve lived here).

Lately, I’ve taken to hand drawing designs more than using Sketchup. I’m not against 3D modeling but I like the speed of pencil and paper.

I’m in that Venn diagram somewhere that combines a leftist outlook with extremely conservative design tastes. I find there’s a hard to express and paradoxical freedom that comes from working within historic design limitations. It certainly makes staring at the blank sheet of paper easier when you have some rules about proportions and standard practices to fall back on.

I’ve also been practicing my hand tool methods. I took a class last year on how to hand cut dovetails and have spent some of my quarantine time practicing this skill, which gets down to learning how to cut an angled line with a saw. It’s actually not that hard once you spend some hours practicing on scrap wood.

Kelly did not like how long it took for me to make the bookshelf (made out of inexpensive beech wood, by the way) and requested that I put the cabinets together faster. I used birch plywood which was more fun to work with than I expected and certainly saved a lot of time. Hardwood has to be milled, the edges jointed and small pieces glued together to make wider boards. It takes days of work. Plywood cabinets come together in hours not days.

The plywood cabinets for Kelly’s office ended up being a kind of ironic, post-modern commentary on the fuddy-duddy bookshelf. Rather than hide the edges of the plywood I decided to bring attention to them. I like the look of the edge of a decent birch plywood. Speaking of plywood, if you work with it you should get it from a local lumberyard not the big box stores. The plywood I got was a big step up in quality–fewer voids and a better surface and well worth the extra price.

I called a friend who restores vintage trailers for some advice on how to finish plywood (thank you Phil!). He suggested a light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper followed by either spray varnish or a poly finish. I went with a poly finish since it’s what I had on hand it ended up looking great. Wish I had the space to build a teardrop trailer out of ply.

The last project for the office will be a desk from a plan in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist Design Book.