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Fresh berries make the best jam

Only homegrown berries have that intense flavor that makes unforgettable jam.

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Ah, homemade: Jars of fruit preserves sit ready to be enjoyed.

Larry Crowe/AP

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I peer to the back of the freezer shelf, sorting through mixed vegetables, ice packs, and containers of frozen chili in search of just one more jar. But tonight's biscuits will be bare. We're out of jam.

My family's farm roots surface when it comes to jam. Jam wasn't something we bought. It was something Mom made – or retrieved from Grandma's house when our family's supply ran low. When you were sent to the basement freezer or pantry for jam, you had your choice: black raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, red raspberry, ground cherry, or the highly coveted wild thimbleberry.

We knew better than to throw out a glass jar. Small jars were saved for jam, larger ones for chili sauce, pickles, or applesauce. One cousin carted boxes of empty glass jars hundreds of miles every time she drove home. Better to deliver them to a jam-making aunt or grandmother than suffer the guilt of pitching a perfectly good jar.

My biggest challenge in making jam is finding local, home-grown berries. Those beautiful megastrawberries in the produce section of the grocery store just don't have the intense flavor that makes unforgettable jam. Home-grown strawberries tend to be far smaller, seedier, and not nearly as stunning on a fruit tray. But their taste is incredible, and a stockpot of boiling jam creates a strawberry aroma that can't be duplicated. So each spring, I search for "pick your own" farms on the Internet, check the agriculture section of the classified ads, mark the dates of farmers' markets on the calendar, and hope that the right mixture of rainfall and temperature will bring a bumper crop of berries.

Blueberry farms are the easiest to find in my area. And blueberries are simple to pick, too, with bushes at eye level loaded with clusters of ripe berries in a good year. Strawberries, on the other hand, require stooping or kneeling. Poison ivy can lurk between the rows of plants, and it takes a lot of tiny berries to fill a box.

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