Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jam, by name.

Yesterday’s story got me thinking about jam. Specifically, about the word “jam”. All sorts of versions of sugared fruit had been around for hundreds of years before there was “jam”. There were “wet” sweetmeats (or “suckets” – think of the Italian mostarda), “dry” sweetmeats – sometimes called quidonies (think of crystallised ginger or glacĂ© apricots), and “marmalades” (which were thick pastes or dry blocks of any fruit – originally probably quince, and later any fruit, before we finally settled on oranges.)

So, we had plenty of ways of preserving fruit with sugar, and plenty of words to describe the various end-products, – but somewhere around the late seventeenth century, “jam” appeared. I understand the first known appearance of the word is in a manuscript written by a Rebecca Price in 1681, but I have no other information on her work. The first published recipe is usually attributed to Mrs. Eales, whose cookbook (1718) we have often used as a source in previous posts. She gives instructions for Apricock-Jam, Rasberry-Jam and Cherry-Jam. It does seem that around this time the fruit and sugar was more likely to be left “wetter” and put up in jars rather than dried in slabs, but we hardly needed another name.

The OED is puzzled, and half-heartedly suggests it may be from the method of “jamming” – that is, “bruising or crushing by pressure” – but is unable to resist the utterly charming and oft-repeated explanation that it derives from the French “j’aime” which means “I love (it)” - supposedly from the response of children to this form of sweetmeat. I am puzzled in turn as to why English children would have adopted a French phrase. I don’t know of any other phrases they adopted in the seventeenth century – and it seems unlikely that many children of the time learned French! Nonetheless, the explanation is so charming, I do hope the linguists eventually prove it true.

I am particularly and unreasonably fond of the spelling “giam”, so I give you Hannah Glasse’s version from her Art of Cookery (1747).

To make rasberry giam.
Take a pint of this [recipe above] currant jelly and a quart of rasberries, bruise them well together, set them over a slow fire, keeping them stirring all the time till it boils. Let it boil five or six minutes, pour it into your gallipots, paper as you do the currant jelly, and keep it for use. They will keep for two or three years, and have the full flavour of the rasberry.

Gallipots – now there’s another thing we don’t find in the kitchen any more.

Quotation for the Day.

The jelly - the jam and the marmalade, And the cherry-and quince-"preserves" she made! And the sweet-sour pickles of peach and pear, With cinnamon in 'em, and all things rare! - And the more we ate was the more to spare, Out to old Aunt Mary's! Ah!
James Whitcomb Riley.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I too have pondered over the word "jam" too and do not think the OED tentative explanation is very plausible - I have come across a receipt for "`how to jarr plums" originally in MS and wonder if the double -r was transcibed as an "m", This explanaition seems just as likely as the OEDs The reference to "jam" in Rebecca Price's manuscript is in the transcription of her ms published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, compiled by Madeleine Masson"The Complete Cook" p. 214 for, "To mske Damson Jam: Mrs Whiteheads Receipt" . I have no reason to believe that the word "jam" was not in the original ms.


David Potter