Preserving the Sweet Days: An Interview with Stephanie McClenny

What if you could capture the most exquisite autumn day and put it in a jar: the blue sky, the crisp air, the scent of crushed leaf fall, all the sweet, tender lusciousness that’s been ripening on the tree for months and months through the long days of summer? Inside every piece of fruit is contained the story of the day it was picked, perfectly ripe and bursting forth with a story of all the days it hung on the branch or the vine, the people who tended and picked it, the skies that rained on it and fed it with sunshine. Stephanie McClenny spends her days telling this story, making small-batch artisanal jam that tastes like heaven. She joins us today to share tales of inspiration and heavy lifting from the jam-making kitchen.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Confituras.

Confituras was born out of a love of cooking and preserving. What initially began as a hobby quickly turned into an obsession. My pantry at home swelled with the abundance of jars I produced after only one season of preserving – I found it to be a great creative outlet as well as something very practical. I felt that others would appreciate that as well and we are lucky enough to have them support us at the farmers' market each week.

Tell us about the products you make. What's in a jar of your jam? What's special about it?

We make our preserves seasonally, meaning we only preserve using fruit that is currently in season. Although we would love to make strawberry jam year round, we wait until spring when the berries are in season in our area. When folks hear that these are ‘our strawberries’ in the jar of jam they’re holding, they understand why it is special.

Why use local ingredients?

We believe that supporting our local farmers is an important way of voting with our dollars. We choose local, quality ingredients because they are better for our environment, both in terms of fuel saved by not having our fruit travel great distances and due to the fact that we can choose our farmer based on their growing methods, i.e. without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We love the fact that we can look our famers in the eye when we ask about how they grow their food. Everyone can have this same experience by shopping at their local farm stand or farmers’ market.

What does "sustainable" mean to you?

My favorite definition of sustainability states that we should ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. I have simply not heard it stated more clearly. As a former girl scout, I have really taken to heart the tenet that one should always leave things better than they found them, to “use resources wisely and make the world a better place.” This is a great rule to live by and can be applied to all aspects of life, not just in terms of food.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Confituras?

We cook in a shared commercial kitchen space and try to do as much of the cooking and prep as possible in the morning hours due to the Texas heat. Once we get a few things on the stove, we attempt to make phone calls to procure more fruit, get details of an event we are participating in, schedule pick-ups of special orders, and receive deliveries. We generally finish up canning and prepping at the kitchen around 3:00 pm, then I’m off to do errands such as deliver jam to our many retail customers, pick up sugar and other supplies, and stop at the bank or post office. Once I return to my home office around 4:00-5:00 pm, I answer emails, then sit down to make a plan for the next day based on how much we were able to accomplish during the day. The day can stretch to 12-14 hours if I allow it so I try to be mindful to shut it down to a healthy work day if I can.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your "job description?"

One thing I didn’t expect as part of my job description is the fact that there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of heavy lifting involved in the jam business. Everything from 10 pound bags of sugar to 50 pound boxes of fruit, from heavy copper jam pots to cases and cases of jam! I joke that although I currently have no time to go to the gym, all the schlepping is taking its place.

What do you find most rewarding about making food?

I enjoy the daily ritual of cooking – I feel that it keeps me grounded. The majority of the time my hands are touching something that comes from the earth, rather than something that is manmade or virtual. It has changed how I view the world around me. I really enjoy the direct communication with my customers I am afforded by working at the farmers’ market. It is important to me to hear the preserving stories of our customers, whether it’s the jar of peach jam their grandmother made that they can’t seem to toss, or the hours they spent helping to do preserving prep while the adults handled the pressure canner safely in the distance. The feedback is immediate and rewarding – it really keeps me going!

What do you find most challenging?

Our biggest challenge is sourcing local fruit. As the demand grows for our product, so does the need for the raw material, aka fruit. Each farmer has their own way of communicating – some email, some text, some have cell phones, and some still only use a landline. We have learned over the years just how to finesse what we need, but sometimes we just won’t be able to get ahold of a certain type of fruit or the quantity needed to produce one of our preserves. For example, this past summer we were only able to produce a few cases of our texas fig preserves, our 2011 Good Food Award winner and one of our biggest sellers, due to availability issues with the Texas Everbearing fig.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to create good food for a living?

Scalability. It is almost impossible to create a quality, locally sourced product on a large scale. Period. It really makes you appreciate the producers who stay small to maintain that quality. I will go out of my way to support them.

What inspires you?

Folks who are obsessed with quality and producing seasonally are an inspiration to me. We are fortunate to have spent the last three years producing our preserves in the same kitchen as Dai Due. Jesse Griffiths, along with his chefs Tabatha Stephens and Morgan Angelone, has helped shape our ethos of production: we use local fruit and other products, we produce seasonally, we attempt to support local family farms and other local businesses equitably.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

If you have a choice, buy local – but only if it’s a quality product. Go to the farmers’ market or a farm stand on a cold, rainy day and support the folks who have showed up. Only purchase produce while it is in season – it is of higher quality and most often less expensive.

What are some of your favorite market finds?

We are in love with the organic tangerines from Orange Blossom Farms available at the market now – they are a dose of sunshine when it starts getting cold and dreary. We are also enamored with the goat milk soaps from Springfield Farm – such a great product and a sweet family, too.

What are you cooking this week?

We are planning lighter meals this week due to the overindulgence of Thanksgiving. We are stocking up on greens, butternut squash, and carrots to stew and roast over the coming days.

What’s your favorite dish using ingredients from the market?

We love to get the thick cut pork chops from Peach Creek Farm and pan fry them in a cast iron skillet. We then top them with apple juniper sauerkraut from Straight from the Vine. Collards or a nice salad complete the meal.

Favorite jam pairing?

This time of year I love our cranberry jalapeno jelly with a bit of fresh chevre or cream cheese – it is a holiday favorite!

What are some new flavors or products lined up for winter?

We look forward to working with all the citrus coming in – rio star grapefruit marmalade with honey and vanilla bean, meyer lemon curd, tangerine cinnamon marmalade, and orange chile de arbol marmalade are winter favorites.

Quick Picks:

Favorite breakfast: I love to top the last bit of jam in the jar with greek yogurt and a bit of granola.

Favorite comfort food: My mother’s lasagna.

Favorite book about food: I have been really enjoying Ripe by Nigel Slater. If you love fruit as I do, this lovely tome is just dreamy.

Favorite cookbook: My most prized possession is a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child which was given to me by my stepmother out of her own collection. My most used and well-worn cookbooks are The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy, The Cuisine of the Rose and The Cuisine of the Sun by Mireille Johnston, and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Oh, and I also own over 30 books about preserving that I look at daily!

Favorite winter fruit/veggie: Anything citrus - I have always been a citrus girl, even prefer it over chocolate!

Favorite food indulgence: Baguette slathered with pure unsalted butter, then duck liver mousse pate, then jam.