Photo-Illustration: Joanna Neborsky
If you want to visit Alyssa Mastromonaco’s impressively industrious, immaculately organized kitchen during the early-summer jamming season — up in the town of Claverack, a few miles east of Hudson — there’s a good chance you will be allotted a strict window of time in which to conduct your business. It’s a bit like her years in the White House, when she was President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff for operations, managing a rabble of visitors to her office in increments down to the minute.
“I’m definitely one of the type-A people,” Mastromonaco says as we inspect the pots of cassis-flavored jam burping on the stove and a collection of California apricots that have been macerating with raw sugar and chunks of rhubarb since yesterday. In addition to her duties as founder (and sole employee) of the jam company Three Dancing Bears, which sells more than 30 kinds of preserves at various boutiques around the state, Mastromonaco co-hosts Hysteria, a weekly podcast on Crooked Media, and is a partner at Bedby8, a TV production company run by George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth. Our discussion must conclude after precisely 45 minutes so she can attend a pitch meeting by Zoom.
“The further away I got from the White House years and having all these tasks to accomplish, the more anxious I became,” she says, fussing with her concoctions in clogs and a berry-stained T-shirt. “The first time I canned, it was a peach jam. It was so stressful: I read all the science; I took notes; I made such a mess. But I felt such a relief at the end of the day. I could look at the table — I could see all my jars. I’d done something creative and also delicious. Last summer, I think I made 1,700 jars of jam.”
Mastromonaco isn’t the only high-powered personality having a jamming moment. She notes that Brooke Shields and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are also in the preserves space. (“They both make marmalade, but I don’t think they’re as nutty as me,” Mastromonaco says.) A decade ago, the British tabloids reported rumors that Kate Moss wanted to go to market with a line, Kate’s Damson Jam. In 2020, New York’s former First Lady Silda Wall Spitzer, who grew up canning preserves in North Carolina, turned her family tradition into a full-fledged business. Silda’s Jam offers elaborate vegan-friendly flavors like strawberry-lemon lavender and “blaspberry” (blackberries plus raspberries); each costs $14.95 for nine ounces, and there’s a three-month, six-jam subscription offer for $110.
Unlike Mastromonaco, Spitzer is reticent about discussing her jamming motivations and techniques with inquiring members of the press. “I do not think I am the right subject for this article,” she wrote in a polite but firm email. Audrey Gelman, another entrepreneurial New Yorker and an avowed jam freak, who stocks Spitzer’s and Mastromonaco’s products in her tastefully trendy Court Street sundries store, the Six Bells, was happy to talk. “I love the idea that these women who’ve conquered places like the White House are now pursuing this kind of self-contained, solitary pleasure,” she says. “Obviously, there’s a connection between the general exhaustion of COVID and of being bombarded by social media 24 hours a day and wanting to escape from it all into something that’s challenging, but also rewarding, and part of the natural order of things.”
Laura O’Brien began making preserves during her days as a fashion publicist for brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Vera Wang. She now runs an award-winning company, Josephine’s Feast, and agrees that the jamming hustle got a big boost from the pandemic. “People had time on their hands,” she says. “They were out foraging and also hoarding, which is something we all enjoyed.” For a certain type of personality, she says, “jamming gets to be a kind of high. You have these raspberries and peaches and plums, and you have to figure out what to do with them. Meanwhile, you’re tapping into traditions, you’re tapping into comfort, and you’re tapping into something you can put your signature on. You can do that with a cake or a batch of cookies, but it won’t last as long. It’s like a yoga flow — you just get into your own little universe. In a world full of chaos, it’s something you can try to do perfectly. It’s something you can control.”
O’Brien outgrew her home kitchen long ago and now works in a small industrial space in Williamsburg. On a recent summer morning, it’s filled with the sugary, steamy, fruity smell of rhubarb and strawberries. Exactly like Mastromonaco, she’s dressed in jamming clogs and a berry-splattered T-shirt, and as she manipulates a burbling vat with a long silver paddle, she explains that traditionally, in the jamming meccas of Europe, preserves were consumed by the rich because sugar was so expensive. She didn’t consider herself a true haute jammer until she visited Paris on a work trip and flew back with two copper preserve pots balanced on her lap.
“You’re a bit of a mixologist, you’re a bit of a perfumer — you’re even a bit of a vintner, mixing your flavors and running around to the different orchards to find the perfectly ripe fruit,” O’Brien says, stirring a batch that has been bubbling at 195 degrees since 7 a.m. It takes hours to boil off the liquid from the strawberries, and you have to keep agitating things so the sugar doesn’t descend to the bottom and burn. She often makes her own pectin — a gelling agent — with a combination of apple skins, cores, and seeds.
“Perfection is the goal, and that’s intoxicating,” O’Brien says, pouring lumpy, fragrant fruit into a sterilized jar. She hands me a carefully packed sample for the road. By now, there are 20 or so jars in my burgeoning collection of artisanal jams, and like boutique wines, they all have distinctive styles and tastes. Spitzer’s jams are made with maple syrup from New York State and tend to have a tart, homegrown taste, which sometimes borders on the savory. O’Brien’s well-balanced preserves have a pleasing fruit-rich texture; you might pour some warm strawberry rhubarb over a bowl of cool yogurt. Mastromonaco’s flavors are filled with a kind of bright, inventive exuberance — especially a smooth, tangy concoction made with last fall’s Concord grapes.
That variety is Mastromonaco’s favorite jam to make: It’s the most labor-intensive. She grew up in nearby Rhinebeck, so she feels at home wandering the fruit stands of Columbia County and getting to know the local farmers. She’s developing arthritis in her elbows from hours spent leaning on the chopping board, but she craves the opportunities for simple creativity that you don’t often get in the high-pressure worlds of Hollywood and politics. “One day, I had apricots simmering, and I smelled this basil that I also had in the kitchen,” she says. “I thought, in my type-A way, Am I going to ruin these apricots by throwing basil in them? I said, Fuck it. I’m going to do it. And it was just one of the most delicious things.”
She has pondered trying to grow her business but decided against it: “You need to have people working for you. I can’t give over that control.” She is renovating a new center of operations nearby, however, with a bigger stove, a larger refrigerator, and an entire pantry to accommodate the army of jars and bushels of fruit that have taken over her life.
Not long ago, the interior decorator Michael S. Smith was preparing for a visit from Michelle Obama and asked Mastromonaco to send over some jam. She supplied apricot and sour-cherry rhubarb. “I know Mrs. Obama liked it because they called me on FaceTime,” she says. “She said, ‘This is so good! What are you doing up there in the woods?’ I said, ‘I’m making jam!’ When I saw the president, he said he hadn’t gotten any jam, so I sent some Concord grape and some Italian prune plum to his office. He did not FaceTime me. But it’s okay. I’ll survive.”