Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 28, 2014
Catsup’s lost legacy reborn in Brooklin
by Ross Gallagher
Rose hips, crabapples, and habanero peppers are just a few of the unorthodox ingredients that flavor Marilyn Cleveland’s Jam Session Jams. Out of her home in Brooklin, where she conceives of new culinary ideas, and in the basement kitchen of the Blue Hill Baptist Church, where her business is based, Cleveland has been experimenting making jams from unlikely combinations of locally grown food since she began her company six years ago.
“I like to improvise,” said Cleveland, whose husband, Scott Cleveland, is a jazz pianist and composer and provided the inspiration for the company’s name. “I do with my jams what he does with his music,” she says. Indeed, the spirit of improvisation is a strong undercurrent in her process. She gathers her ingredients from nearby farms, usually attempting to make use of surplus produce and wild fruits and vegetables that demand she adapt to her weekly harvests. Her cooking process is no less spontaneous. Often, amidst her efforts to find the best uses for her eccentric collections of locally grown food, she’ll conceive of entirely new products, such as the syrup she now makes from rose hips.
“Rose hips,” she explains, “have incredibly high amounts of vitamin C. Families in New England have always made syrups and teas from rose hips that they’ve drank and fed to their children in the wintertime to keep them healthy.” Imbued with a strong sense of history, Cleveland’s incorporation of unlikely, often neglected, foods finds a lineage in rural New England life, where inhabitants have always made a use of everything around them that they could find one for. By way of aligning her improvisatory work methods with those of her ancestors, she explains that the best uses for many wild flowers, herbs, and fruits were usually found through just the same process of intuition and experimentation that she employs in her jam-making.
Her latest product, a catsup made from Concord grapes that grow wild on the edges of local farmland, is a perfect example. The recipe was inspired by her great aunt Florence, who used to make the catsup on their family farm in New Gloucester, Maine, where Cleveland grew up. Born of traditional New England necessity, the grape catsup provided a venue then, as it does now, for wild fruit that would have otherwise gone bad on the vine. Unlike the more familiar ketchup we all know, Cleveland’s catsup is a spicy sauce that balances tenuously between sweet and savory, lending itself well to a variety of uses. And, as it turns out, her version of America’s favorite condiment is much truer to its origins than the sweet, red tomato-based slathering sauce we’ve grown so accustomed to dressing our fries with. The first mention of ketchup, explained Cleveland, was found in the written records of Imperial China.
Dating as far back as 300 B.C., texts from Southern China made reference to a kind of fermented paste, dubbed “koe-cheup,” that was made from fish entrails, meat byproducts, and soy beans. This paste was highly valued for its preservative qualities and became a dietary staple amongst the crew on long ocean voyages. It soon spread along trade routes to Indonesia and the Philippines, and by the early 1700s, it had become popular with British traders in particular, who introduced the salty paste to their own country. Once there, it flourished.
By the 19th century, English cookbooks contained recipes for ketchup made from oysters, mussels, anchovies, mushrooms, walnuts, lemons, celery, plums, peaches, and elderberries. The ketchups all shared a certain salty, spicy flavor, but had otherwise become remarkably diverse. It wasn’t until 1812, when James Mease, a Philadelphia scientist, made the first ketchup using tomatoes, or “love apples” as they were then called, that ketchup began to bear resemblance to the popular condiment it has now become. In 1876, Heinz made Mease’s invention into a national commodity, endearing the hearts of Americans to this particular iteration of ketchup and obscuring the condiment’s remarkably diverse roots. Concord grape catsup, however, as well as a number of other regional varieties, continued to flourish on rural farms in New England where its practicality as a preservative of excess produce proved essential to the farmers and their families.
The Concord grape, owing its namesake to the Massachusetts town where it was first cultivated, is a fruit with a rich tradition in New England life. Its use in ketchup, Cleveland estimates, is at least 100 years old, and most likely goes back to the time of its earliest cultivation in the region in 1854. The grapes can still be found growing wild on farms all over Maine and throughout New England. Two farms in the peninsula area, Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot and Horsepower Farm in Blue Hill, are where Cleveland finds the Concord grapes for her own catsup.
Sourced from local farms as the ingredients for most of her jams, syrups, and catsup are, Cleveland is trying to develop her small business on a sustainable scale. While she maintains a handful of regional wholesale accounts: Sandy’s Provisions in Brooklin, Winterport Winery in Winterport, the Blue Hill Co-op in Blue Hill, and State St. Wine Shop in Bangor, her interest lies chiefly in continuing to experiment and improvise with artisanal, small-batch products that vary seasonally based on what she can find on farms or in the wild to harvest. She is currently on the lookout for good sources of quince and gooseberries, as she is for a new workspace where she and her husband can combine their mutual love of improvisation with both music and food into a venue that serves the community directly. You can find more information about Jam Session Jams, as well as recipes for using them, online at marilynsjamsession.net and at facebook.com/marilynsjamsession.