Some people head to the beach for family reunions; others gather at Disneyland, or plan week-long camping trips at a national park. My family heads to Myton, a dust bowl in northeast Utah.
Myton is a town of just over 500 people—and there's a lot of dust. This is not the picturesque landscape of arches and canyons you see on Instagram. This is my great-great-grandfather’s farm, where a second or third cousin twice-removed now grows alfalfa and sheep.
Every five years, 100 or so of us descend on a house that could double for the set of Little House on the Prairie for a summer weekend. We Macgyver meals in a kitchen that hasn’t been updated since 1950, host a talent show, wage water balloon fights, barbecue, bury a time capsule, try to find the previous time capsule, and shoot clay pigeons. And sweat. A lot.
But my favorite part of the entire event has to be the auction. Usually held the last night of the reunion, family members donate a mixture of gag gifts, ancient family heirlooms (not the nice ones), and homemade treats, then bid to raise money for the next reunion’s supplies. Every auction, I try to get my grandma’s raspberry jam.
Grandma’s always been an avid canner. She learned from her mother, who made marmalades, apple butters, and preserves from fruit they had in the backyard. They always had homemade jam in the house.
"When we’d come home from swimming in the summer," she said, "raspberry jam and toast was the only thing we could eat to tide us over before dinner. I could eat three or four slices, I was so hungry!”
When my grandma was older, she joined her mother in making jams, boiling the fruits and filling the jars. She’d store them in her dark, cool basement, sometimes taking years to eat through a batch. Even after her mother died, Grandma continued jamming.
Now, she tends to stick with raspberry jam, using a freezer method her neighbor showed her 15 years ago. Unlike the typical heat-process canning of sterilizing jars and lids before filling and sealing, freezer jam doesn't even need to boil. All you need is ripe fruit, sugar, freezer jam–compatible pectin, and maybe 30 minutes of cook time. The product is a little different; it's not thick and concentrated, but looks and tastes like ripe fruit. Also, it's not shelf-stable and has to be stored in, you guessed it, the freezer. Grandma gives them as gifts to friends and family, but always saves a healthy number of jars for the reunion auction.
I’ll admit that Grandma would gladly give me raspberry jam whenever my heart desires. But there’s something so much sweeter about winning it in a bidding frenzy. And I do mean winning—Grandma’s jam goes fast.
I remember a couple of reunions ago when two jars were on the block. My dad (the auctioneer) started the bidding at $5, which I matched. To tease me, my uncle bid $10, then $16 when I countered with $15.
But then one of my younger cousins, Sophie, entered the round. At 5, she only understood that the higher number won. So she kept going one dollar over every bid I made. When we finally reached $25, I decided it would be easier to just ask Grandma for a blackmarket jar and signaled I was done. But Sophie kept bidding…against herself. When she yelled out "$30!", my dad declared the jam sold for $25.
“It’s not fair, but it’s right,” my dad said as he handed her the jar.
Don’t worry. I got my own jar at Grandma’s house later that week. And every year since. I try to ration it, savoring it in yogurt and oatmeal and as an ice cream topper. Every time I eat it, I think of Grandma’s beaming face after that bidding war. Not only was she overjoyed we loved her jam, but she was happy our entire family valued her mom’s tradition.
For me, seeing my grandma that happy is a sweet enough reason to sweat in a dust bowl.
- 14 pounds raspberries
- 8 boxes of pectin (Grandma uses SureJell)
- 2 cups lemon juice
- 32 ounces corn syrup
- 24 cups sugar
The best vehicle for jam
Do you have a family jam you're obsessed with? Tell us about it in the comments below!