An Interview With Laena McCarthy: Jam Anarchist
Let it be said: Laena McCarthy is an anarchist. Not the kind that advocates for a stateless society or that is violently belligerent. From the coziness of her kitchen, Laena is leading a food revolution that is refreshing to hear about in an era where individuals would rather have pre-made frozen meals for dinner than a nice cooked dish. The founder of Anarchy In A Jar has traveled around the world and has educated herself in the art of making the purest, most tasteful, and most creative jams possible. Strawberry Balsamic Jam, anyone? With a profound sense of respect for the ingredients that she uses and for the consumers that she serves, the Brooklyn-based jam queen is striving for a more organic world in which the global community educates itself on what it eats and where it came from.
Can you tell me a little bit about your blog and what you do?
I have a jam business. I make jam, jellies, desserts, chutneys. It’s artisanal – I cook it here in Brooklyn, and it’s almost all local fruits. I started it from the ground up. I learned about jam from my mom, initially, and over the years I perfected my recipes. Primarily, I make jam, but the second part of the business is my blog where I post the journey of the jam-making. And then I do a lot of work in the community; I’m pretty active with all the things that are going on with the artisanal food movement in the city.
So you obviously know a lot about plants and gardening – where did you learn about that?
I grew up upstate, near Woodstock, and that area does have a lot of farms, and I was always involved in that. My mother was a landscaper growing up, too, so she always kind of instilled in me a love of growing and an understanding the cycle of jam. To me, it’s the pure essence of the fruit that really matters… knowing the history of it. I visit the farms where I get my fruit from; I see where it’s growing, I like understanding the full cycle of how it happened and the magic of growing it. I think you can taste the difference between something that has had that kind of attention and love put into it and something that hasn’t.
Can you explain the “anarchy” part of your blog, Anarchy in a Jar?
It started with the product. I actually came up with the name years ago, when I first started making jam for pleasure, for a hobby – I would make it and give it away as gifts for holidays. I talk about what I do as “the freedom from food tyranny” – that’s kind of the ultimate idea of anarchy, I guess. And so we just started calling it Anarchy in a Jar, and it kind of stuck.
What influenced you to open a jam business?
It started kind of fortuitously! I would have jam tasting parties before I even became an official business. It just started to catch on, and I just realized there was a real need for it, actually. It’s something that people want – they want something that’s local. We don’t just want to necessarily eat something – we like having a story with it, too. It creates relationships. Eating is more pleasurable when you’re connected to these stories.
And you do jam-making classes – what was your inspiration for that?
I started doing it just because it seemed like there were people asking me for it. People are often intimidated by things like jam-making, and pickle-making, I think partly because there is the fear of things in jars, especially, being safe. It can be daunting, especially in our online era, you Google something like “Jam recipe” and you get, like, a million, and they’re all different. So classes are a great way for people to come in and taste stuff and learn about it, but it’s more importantly a way for them to become less fearful.
What else do you do?
I always have projects I’m working on. I am a maker of things, so I’m always exploring… not just for profit, but for pleasure as well. I explore cider-making, I’m learning to make wine right now, I’m always jarring things and exploring with different fermentations….
In terms of experimenting with making other things, do you just kind of play with ingredients on your own? What kind of resources do you utilize?
I usually use the knowledge of other people, primarily. I will totally Google “hard cider” and see what other people are doing, and then I generally look at it as a guideline. I also talk to people who have done it before, get those secrets of making stuff from them, and then I experiment – I see what works and what doesn’t. And it doesn’t always work. I’ve definitely had hard cider explode all over my closet when I tried to brew it there! [laughs] Things don’t always work out, but it’s fun, and you learn a lot. It can be sometimes intimidating to ask other people for help, especially now that we live in this era where you can just Google everything and we don’t actually have to talk to people about it and show our own ignorance. But I think it helps so much.
What’s some advice that you would have for people who are interested in making things on their own more?
One, talk to people – if there’s something you’re interested in doing, for sure do it, and know that you might screw it up a few times. I think the one aspect of DIY culture that people forget about is the community aspect. You don’t even necessarily have to pay for a class, but you can find out about different workshops that are happening, or call people up. I have people call me up all the time and say they want to learn how to make jam, and I’m like, “Sure, join me in the kitchen sometime when I’m making it.” It’s just how we all learn how to do things better – see how others have done it, and learn from their mistakes. The sky’s the limit in terms of doing things yourself, making your life richer, and being more involved. It’s about challenging yourself and also making life more interesting. There’s nothing better than being able to share something you’ve made and watch people love it and enjoy it.
And what about the business side of it? Was that difficult for you to start?
It was hard – it’s still challenging actually. I still do learn it every day. A lot of it is talking to people and getting advice. It’s just a process also of knowing that things take time. You just have to be willing to know that it’s risky, and you have to look at the long haul as well. The goal is to try to present that blend of something that’s exciting to people but also has the legitimacy of being something that’s good.
What can readers or viewers of the website do to support you?
Ask me questions; I like when people send me questions or send in suggestions. Read my blog, follow it, but also show up at the market and say, “Oh, I read about your jam, and I’m here, and I want to taste it.” People will show up and ask for stuff, like, “Do you make this kind of a jam?” and I’m like, “I don’t! That’s interesting, though, and I’ll experiment with it.” That makes it more of a fascinating relationship – it’s the virtual and the real. I like to find that good blend.
Online at anarchyinajar.com
Interview by Manpreet Sadhal. Photography by Zack Dezon. Originally appeared on Daily BR!NK.