“Life’s too short to eat bad peaches,” Daniel Perry says as he hands me four just-ripe peaches in a box. They smell impossibly sweet and distinctly peachy through the closed box. “Last week, the peaches were mediocre. But not this week.” After we talk, Perry plans on washing, cutting, and processing 200 pounds of peaches and turning it all into jam that very day. It’s peak summer fruit season, so he’s working 80 to 100 hours a week making jam.
Perry is a jam maker based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the owner of Jam According to Daniel. He sells this jam at local farmers markets (his anchor business), at various shops in town, and online. I first met Perry at the farmers market when I bought a jam called Golden Red Raspberry, a magical combination of raspberries, turmeric, ginger, and pepper that’s sweet, bright, earthy, and peppery. It’s easy to get to the bottom of the jar quickly when spread on thick slices of sourdough bread.
“There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people,” wrote the late Edna Lewis—the force who defined Southern cooking. She was referring to people like Perry. He uses only seasonal fruits grown in Virginia and neighboring states to create beloved classics like strawberry, blueberry, and peach jams, and also ingenious combinations like apricot and calamondin, black raspberry and rhubarb, and blueberry and Meyer lemon jams. He calls himself a pozzy-wallah, an early 20th century term referring to someone who is “inordinately fond of jam.” I’d agree. As he spoke, I thought to myself, here is a man that stuck his landing on his first try and succeeded. He found his calling.
I intended to talk to Perry about the business of making and selling jam, but as he spoke, it dawned on me that his jam had set a thousand bells ringing. Instead, we talked about his customers and the stories they shared with him as they stood across from him at the farmers market, jars of jam stacked in between them. It turns out, jam unleashes a torrent of memories in people.
Perry shared these memories with me over coffee and surrounded by lots of chatter and buttery treats at Cou Cou Rachou, a local bakery in Charlottesville.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you got started selling jam at the farmers market.
After college I returned home and found a job making jam for a local winery. When I lost that job, I came down to the farmers market to sell jam. It was July of 2008—that’s 14 years ago. I was 23. I did a thousand jars of jam my first year. Now I’m at 10,000 to 12,000 jars, which is about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of fruit per year.
What do you love about selling jam at the farmers market?
The push and pull rejection-approval thing is interesting. The jam is right here. People, especially when it comes to jam, have their own stories.
I have this one guy who's a good customer. He just hates rhubarb. He told me his grandmother would make stewed rhubarb and he’d have to polish his plate. It was just so terrible and slimy. I told him, “That doesn't sound like the most pleasant sensory memory to have when you come here. So, please get the plain strawberry jam. The strawberry rhubarb is not slimy, stringy, or gross, but I get it. The rhubarb just spoils it for you.”
Do you get a lot of stories about people’s grandmother’s jams?
Definitely. This lady came by and said, “I got your damson jam for my grandmother because she's blind and can't make her damson jam anymore. Yours is the only one that I could ever eat that stood up to hers. I’ll get some for her.” The lady comes back a couple of weeks later and says, “Remember that plum jam I got for my blind grandmother? She called me to say she couldn’t find the jar of jam, but that the most amazing thing happened! She found another jar of her own jam! I told her it’s just one jar, but she said, ‘No! This is my jam. It’s tastes just like my jam.’” If I’m fooling the blind grandma, that’s pretty high praise, right?
Those damson plums must trigger so many memories from folks since it’s a fruit that’s been preserved and cooked with for generations here in Virginia.
This guy came by who got really excited when he saw my damson plum jam because he used to pick beach plums as a kid. His mom would drive him to the beach, where there were beach plums on the dunes. The beach plum trees had big thorns—he remembers spikes as big as his arm though they were probably only a couple inches. She’d find a spot on the ground where there was a gap in the branches and she’d shove her kid—him, her young son—into the hole with a sack behind him. She’d say, “Fill up the sack and then I’ll pull you out.” He’d pick plums all day and then she’d cook them. He said that every morsel of that jam was the best jam he'd ever had because he had worked so hard for it.
In this sensory space—this stand of jam—it's so intimate. There's no filter. Sometimes people say, “Oh, that one was not your finest or not to my taste!”
I love the stories—sure you’re there to sell jam, but at the same time you touch on that personal part of how humans connect through memory and stories. And you never know what stories you’ll get.
Where else could we interact with each other on that level? The feedback loop between me and the customers at the farmers market is like this far apart. [Holds index finger and thumb close together.] Plus, it's more intimate because they're eating the jam.