When life gave Aletha Thomas lemons—and mangoes and mountain apples—she did the only thing that came naturally to her: She jammed.
How much of your food do you throw away? If you’re like the majority Americans, the answer is, “too much.”
In 2012, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans dump 40 percent of their food supply every year, with food waste accounting for the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills. At nearly every stage in the supply chain, from farmer to retailer to consumer, fresh produce is tossed more than any other food product (including seafood, meat, grains, and dairy), which is unfortunate given the dozens of delicious ways these foods can be preserved.
With just a 15 percent reduction in food waste saving enough to feed 25 million Americans annually, we can all afford to be more mindful of our consumption habits. Here, a few locals show us how they waste not.
Creating a Hit
In 2010, Aletha Thomas was teaching at a middle school on Kaua‘i when furlough days hit Hawai‘i’s public schools. Overnight, Thomas’ hours and pay were slashed, and she was shut out of her own school campus. For her, it turned into quite literally a jarring experience.
When a friend invited Thomas to sell homemade food alongside her at a farmers market, Thomas decided to give it a try. Looking for ways to make up pay lost as a result of the furloughs, Thomas whipped up a few jars of mango jam to see if they would move.
To her delight, the jam was a hit, selling out quickly and prompting her to make another batch, then another. After three consecutive weeks of sold-out jam, Thomas decided that if life was going to give her lemons, she would make marmalade.
Today, Thomas’ Monkeypod Jam includes 50 types of jams, jellies, marmalades, curds, butters, and sauces that rotate week by week.
Her fruit-preserving enterprise follows the basic tenet she learned growing up in a family in which her grandmothers preserved fruit to help get through the bitter winters of Minnesota and Saskatchewan: “Preserve only what grows around you, and only in season.”
Closely following nature’s rhythm means there is no time to slack. It also means that when a farmer (one of the 30 growers she buys from) calls to tell her they have a mother lode of ripe tomatoes that needs moving immediately, she moves.
Two hundred pounds of ripe tomatoes later, Thomas has concocted one of her best-selling items: spiced tomato jam that, flavored with pepper and cumin, hums with notes of chutney.
As a committed supporter of local agriculture, Thomas uses only Kaua‘i-grown produce in her jams, even if it means some popular items aren’t always available.
That’s only natural, she says, adding: “We believe strongly there’s enough food here on Kaua‘i. We have farmers growing for us, and we really want to start with our neighbors and our families.”
We believe strongly there’s enough food here on Kaua‘i. We have farmers growing for us, and we really want to start with our neighbors and our families.
Make It Last: Ways To Consume Better (Explore the other stories in this 4-part series)
A certified master food preserver, Thomas utilizes wide, traditional French Mauviel copper pots that allow food to be heated quickly and evenly in order to capture freshness without overcooking. Unopened, Monkeypod Jam products remain shelf-stable for about six months.
And because they aren’t filled with a chemistry lab’s worth of artificial preservatives, they don’t stay good indefinitely.
“Our ingredients list is very simple, like what your grandmother would have put in a jar,” she says.
Each six-ounce jar is filled with freshly picked produce and basic ingredients like dried spices and small amounts of sugar. The product line includes banana foster jam, Tahitian lime curd, papaya chutney, starfruit ginger jelly, lemquat marmalade, and orange chocolate sauce.
Reflecting on the importance of preserving fruit, Thomas says that all too often, people today turn a blind eye to seasonality, demanding a uniform, steady supply of the same produce year-round.
“As consumers, we’ve become very spoiled,” she says.
For Thomas, fruit preservation is one way to eat and live in harmony with nature while extending the period food can be enjoyed. For her, preserving is an invitation to rediscover the joy of fresh food processed at its peak.
Monkeypod Jam has been a hit with visitors because it’s an easy, portable way to bring home something exotic and distinctly Hawaiian. Fresh jam captures the essence of Hawai‘i and allows the bearer to share an otherwise intangible sense of place.
Who in Wisconsin, in the dead of winter, would expect a jar of guava butter or jaboticaba jelly?
For similar reasons, locals treat themselves or send a jar in care packages to loved ones, knowing that the sight and smell of liliko‘i curd or mountain apple pepper jelly is transformative, reminding far-away friends and family of home, or transporting them back to their childhoods to that tree they used to climb in tutu’s garden on bright summer days so long ago.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream coconut oil and sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla extract. Mix well. With the mixer on low, slowly add in the flour mixture. Mix until combined; the dough will be crumbly. Stir in the sliced almonds.
Stir the jam to loosen it up. Gently press half of dough into bottom of prepared baking dish. Evenly spread jam over dough. Sprinkle remaining dough over the top, making sure to cover the entire bars. Press gently to form the top layer.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool completely and cut into squares.