Northern lights dance above us this time of year and the first frost ripens the highbush and lowbush cranberries, and the first snow sparkles in the forest, making a blanket that protects our berry bushes. There’s a lot of magic happening around us in nature and even in our kitchens.
In our kitchens, we measure, stir, press and boil and somehow a juicy concoction thickens, and cools and we have jam. Our Southeast Alaskan homemade jams and jellies are made from the berries of Tlingit Aaní.
Berries are one of our soul foods that we’ve been eating for thousands of years. Whenever I send a care package to a college student, or someone who’s moved out of Alaska, it’s often a combination of Alaskan favorites: pickled fireweed, seaweeds, beach asparagus, gray currant jelly, rhubarb jelly, thimbleberry jam, sockeye, king salmon, shrimp, herring eggs, caribou, Labrador tea, devil’s club tea, blueberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, and more.
Sometimes a care package is all we need to get through a day, a month, a winter season. Sometimes if we just show up at an Elder’s door or a busy family’s home with a jar or two of thimbleberry jam, it conjures up a feeling of belonging, that someone cares for you, had a small thought of you, enough to spread jam and love. Life can be overwhelming, especially these last few years, and receiving homemade jam can be reassuring.
Jam and jelly ideas: white lilac jelly, pink lilac jelly, purple lilac jelly, Sitka rose jelly, hemlock jelly, and spruce tip/fireweed jelly combination.
There’s a good poem by Wendell Berry (Yes, he’s got the best name!) called “The Peace of Wild Things” that speaks about what he does when the world gets overwhelming: He goes out into the peace of wild things. I can relate. I like to find the find quiet places near to the sea or in the forest. I love the smell of the forest in fall and how it changes into winter. I can smell that magic of changing seasons.
Most of what I’ve been conjuring lately, though, is mundane: clearing my lot in Hawai’i, and building a tiny house. Normally, this time of year, I’d be getting ready to make jams and jellies. It can be hard to move out of Alaska, even if it’s only for the winter season. As soon as I get a post office box and a place to keep my food, I’ll be sending out the jam SOS.
Jam and jelly ideas: low-sugar blackberry jam, low-sugar salmonberry jam, low-sugar blueberry jam, and low-sugar red huckleberry jam.
I prefer eating berries fresh or frozen, but if I eat jam or jelly, it’s only Alaskan varieties made by friends or family. Nothing store bought. While living farther north in Alaska, I once received a care package from my mom and sister, Nikka, who pick berries and make jellies and jams for our tribal community in Wrangell. They make the best jams ever. You know you’re loved when you open a box of blueberry jelly, red huckleberry jelly, mixed blueberry and huckleberry, thimbleberry jelly, spruce tip jelly, and fireweed honey. Currently my most favorite jam in the world is a thimbleberry/blueberry blend that my mom calls blue thimble. This combo is magic sauce. Silky sweet is how I would describe it. It’s a rich flavor better than any other jam I’ve ever had. In fact, I like it more than nagoon berry jam.
Jelly and jam ideas: blueberry jam, blueberry/thimbleberry combo jam, red huckleberry/blueberry combo jam, nagoon berry jam, and gray currant jelly.
I’ve been traveling to Hawai’i off-and-on for many years with the hope of living there part-time. While there, I discovered dragon fruit. Back home in Alaska, I’d make fireweed and dragon fruit combination jelly, inspired by missing friends in Hawai’i. This jelly combines two of my favorite places in the world: Alaska and Hawai’i.
Most berries and flowers I make jam and jelly from have a wonderful scent that reminds me of home. But one thing I learned is to not judge a berry by its smell, because not all berries or bushes smell nice. Red elderberries are in that category. Cooking the berries gives off a deceptively awful smell, but the syrup and jelly is fantastic.
Jam and jelly ideas: fireweed and clover jelly, black huckleberry jam, honeysuckle jelly, nasturtium jelly, and Labrador tea jelly.
Another berry that smells are shaax (Lingít), gray currants, also known as stink berries. I’m one who loves the smell, though, but many people don’t. Shaax have a forestry scent. I wish this column had smell-o-vision for you. These berries grow on bushes that can get quite tall. Shaax are dark blue almost black skin with a white layer over the top (that doesn’t wash off). They have a gelatinous green/yellow center. If you eat one of these berries off the bush, you won’t be inspired to eat handfuls of them. But shaax make an amazing jam and it’s one of my favorite jams to make. It’s like a crazy science experiment. It’s so much fun watching the berries transform from this black and gray dusty colored berry with a mucous color inside, to beautiful red wine-colored jam that tastes lovely.
Here’s some more advice for jelly, juice, or syrup makers: Praise for berry steamers! You get more juice out of your berries by using a steamer rather than a cheese cloth dripping method. Less mess and less hassle too.
Making jams and jellies nowadays can be expensive, so families can get together to order pectin and sugar in bulk and seek out used jars from other families. Don’t be deterred from making jam or jelly. Use the recipes that are inside the box of pectin, choosing the recipe that resembles the berries you’ve picked. Use the raspberry jam recipe when making salmonberry jam. Blueberry jelly and jam recipe can be use when making red huckleberry jelly or jam. Don’t be afraid to experiment with blended jams and jellies. The most interesting and delicious jelly I made I made contained both tea from chaga, Labrador tea, rosehip tea, and juice from elderberries, and blueberries. It’s fantastic. Whatever you make, you can divide up and share. One family can make one type of jam or jelly, and another family can make another, then divide them amongst yourselves.
Jam and jelly ideas: chaga/elderberry, chaga/blueberry, red salmonberry jelly, orange salmonberry jelly.
When the world’s craziness seems too much, I go berry picking, so I end up with lots of berries. My version of therapy from politics. Some years, I make a lot of jams and jellies. I often think I need jelly making minions. Holy berry sauce! Aatlein shaax kanéegwál’ yéi xwsinei. I make a lot of gray currant berry sauce. It takes effort to fill the jelly jars I stack up every year. Hoarding problems aren’t all bad when you’re saving the berries in the freezer for a fall or winter jam-making season.
But, when the world gets overwhelming, go where the crows and ravens feed on our berries, into the peace of picking berries. There’s a natural rhythm to this life in Southeast Alaska. After the season of hiking and harvesting, there’s a season of healing and giving. Go ahead and take a stroll under the northern lights, but also head to the kitchen and stir up something special. Make a batch of jam or jelly and gift some away. There’s magic in that for sure.
• Yéilk’ Vivian Mork writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.