Ayako and Family Jam
BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
It was many years later, and many miles away from Japan, when a friend suggested Gordon help out at the Mair-Taki Farm both at the University District Farmers’ Market. Katsumi Taki grows a wide variety of Asian vegetables and stone fruit on his farm in the Yakima valley. She started working at the stand in 2010, selling kabocha, shungiku, apricots, and various plum varieties.
“One day Taki-san asked if I knew how to make jam,” she says. “He suggested I make jam with the fruit that didn’t sell at the market.” When she asked what else he could do with the unsold fruit, he said he would have to compost it.
“Oh no!” Gordon was horrified. “Japanese people never waste food.” This was the beginning of her career as a jam maker.
It is this love of beauty that is a central theme in Gordon’s life. She had also been working at Marigold and Mint, the flower and gift shop in Melrose Market on Capitol Hill, and designing floral arrangements for restaurants such as Sitka & Spruce and Café Lago. Her aesthetic instincts are well honed. Soon she was turning out jars of jam with jewel-like colors, a velvety texture, and a surprising depth of flavor.
The resulting Ayako and Family Jam quickly won fans at the farmers’ market, where it was sold at the Mair-Taki stand, and at Marigold and Mint, her first commercial account. Some, like Modernist Cuisine co-author and chef Maxime Bilet, became strong supporters. “Max would buy three or four jars each week,” Gordon explains. “I said—‘Max, you can’t be eating all that jam yourself!’” Bilet admitted he liked to give the colorful jars as gifts, but he often ate the jam himself with a spoon.
In the Mair-Taki produce, Gordon had a wide palette to play with—the farm grows twenty-five plum varieties alone. “There’s Greengage plum,” Gordon explains, Yellow plum, Mirabelle plum, Red wild plums, Coral red, China red, Satsuma, and European plums like Damson, Green Italian plum, and Elephant plum.” The flavor profiles run the gamut, from a deeply flavored tart plum like Damson, to China red, which has a delicate, rose-like scent.
A wealth of fruit makes for long summer workdays. “When they’re harvesting the fruit, it comes in every week and I’m going 3,000 miles an hour,” Gordon says. Not only does she make jam in the summer, she also processes and freezes fruit to use for jam throughout the year. “One day is processing and one is production,” she says. With her ongoing flower work at Marigold and Mint, she works six days a week, with a jam production schedule that starts at 7am and goes to 4pm, making 100 jars a day in batches of 10-12.
“Sometimes I wonder if I should make a bigger production,” she says, “but you have to be patient. I need to make sure every batch is right. If I rush it, or I’m impatient, you can taste it in the jam.”
Gordon knows she may have to increase production to meet demand and keep the company profitable (many jam varieties were sold out by November last year), but is hesitant unless she can find a way that maintains the quality of her product. “If I got an order for 1,000 jars, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It’s not cheap jam” (each jar retails for $12), “but it has quality.”
This attention to detail has won fans—in the food world, and in the commercial kitchen where Gordon makes her jams. “I share the kitchen with chocolate makers and caterers and bakers and they are very supportive and started using my jam in their products,” she says. Her jam is also being sold at a number of local retail outlets—and through the CSA programs at two farms. Recent sale inquiries have come from Portland and New York.
The quality of Gordon’s jam has the power to turn people nostalgic. “People say it reminds them of their grandmother’s jam, or spending time in the countryside picking fruit,” Gordon says. “I love to hear that people enjoy it—that helps keep me going.”
The other thing that keeps her going is the community that has surrounded her and this project. “My most supportive people are my children,” she says. “They are also my CFO and my web designer—they are right there with me. For me it really is about family and community.”
It’s a simple thing—a jar of jam. But when done well it can feel transcendent. “People ask—what is so special about Ayako’s jam?” Gordon says. “Is it Taki’s fruit, or what I do? I think it’s both. He has so much passion and care for what he does, and that’s what I try to do too.”
Flower designer and jam maker would seem to be two different careers, but Gordon sees similarities. “I’m drawn to the beauty of nature,” she says, “the flowers and the fruit.”
“It’s hard work,” she admits, “and it’s not much money,” but she feels passionate about the jewel-toned jars she produces. “I am so tired now,” she says, “but I am really happy.”
Ayako and Family Jam is available at Bar Ferd’nand, Café Lago, Eat Local, London Plane, Mrs. Cooks, Marigold and Mint, Marx Foods, Pioneer Square Pantry, The Pantry at Delancey, Volunteer Park Café, and through the CSA programs at Full Circle Organics and Oxbow Organic Farm. You can also order online at ayakoandfamily.com.
Tara Austen Weaver is the author of The Butcher & The Vegetarian, Tales from High Mountain, and Orchard House (forthcoming 2015), a memoir of growing food and family. Her favorite breakfast is Ayako and Family Damson Plum Jam on toast with tea.