When the photograph of a plastic bucket filled with moldy jam surfaced on social media in July, it upset a lot of people, not the least of whom were fans of Sqirl, the white-owned Los Angeles restaurant whose national profile rose on a thick, very Instagrammable slice of toast slathered with a layer of ricotta and a swipe of that famous jam.
For some Black jam makers, though, the issue was about more than a bucket of contaminated preserves. It was hard not to view the whole mess through the lens of systemic racism, which hums in the background of America’s modern craft food movement.
Jam at Sqirl sometimes grew so much mold employees had to scrape it off in layers, as directed by the owner, Jessica Koslow. Ms. Koslow, whose book on jamming was published the very week the photo appeared, later apologized and said the process that caused the mold had long been rectified.
The image, taken by a frustrated employee, quickly blew up into a larger conversation about how restaurant workers are treated, recipe ownership and even gentrification.
While members of the African-American Facebook group Sistas Who Can, which is dedicated to the art of preservation, didn’t discuss it, #JamGate didn’t go unnoticed among Black jammers. Canners have two jobs, they say: preserving the season and inhibiting the growth of anything that could spoil the food or make someone sick.
“This is wholly irresponsible, dangerous and illegal,” Shakirah Simley, who once owned a company called Slow Jams, said in a Facebook exchange with June Taylor, the Bay Area jam impresario, who was equally appalled. “I’m sick of the excuses and also, frankly, the white privilege displayed here.”
Ashley Rouse, 33, who started Trade Street Jam Company in her Brooklyn apartment in 2015, has visited Sqirl and bought plenty of jars of Ms. Koslow’s jam.
“They are delicious,” said Ms. Rouse, who produces a line of low-sugar jams that mix unexpected flavors like strawberry, chipotle and fig at a facility in New Jersey. “But I can’t lie to you and say I didn’t go there and think: ‘How did she get this book? How did her jams become so popular?’”
The incident comes as people are examining how race plays out in the craft food movement, whose latest incarnation took off after the 2008 recession, fueled by urban pickle makers, tabletop chocolatiers and closet salumi curers with a D.I.Y. ethos and a growing base of digital-weary consumers looking for handcrafted food.
Ms. Simley’s route to the jam pot started with a desire to change the food system. She grew up as the eldest of five children in Harlem. Her mother was a social worker who worked full-time while she studied for her master’s degree. Ms. Simley, 35, did a lot of the cooking, which is how she learned to run an economical kitchen.
The race and class inequities in how America feeds itself were evident to her early on. She lived in a neighborhood without a full-service grocery store. The only strawberries she had access to were inside a Smucker’s jar.
At the University of Pennsylvania, she discovered how she could channel her dedication to social justice into improving the food system. A year after she graduated, Ms. Simley headed west for a food policy job in Oakland, Calif. She discovered the Slow Food movement and backyard fruit, which she was appalled to see fall to the ground uneaten.
Making jam allowed her to continue to address social equities through a Black-centered approach to food rooted in community and self-sufficiency, while creating something delicious that, it turns out, she had a natural talent for.
“I was primed to be a preserver,” she said. “I deep-dived into it. I turned my kitchen upside down. I stayed up to 3 a.m., and would go to sleep with streaks of strawberry jam in my Afro.”
She read every book about preserving she could find. One was by Abby Fisher, who had been born into slavery and made her way from Mobile, Ala., to San Francisco in 1877, bringing with her a deep knowledge of food preservation. She opened a popular pickle and preserve business, and in 1881 published “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking,” believed to be one of the first cookbooks by an African-American woman. Collectors have paid $15,000 for an original copy.
Ms. Simley started her company Slow Jams in 2008, hand-cutting the best fruit she could find, getting it from women or family farmers when she could and selling it at underground farmers’ markets and as wedding favors. She began teaching the craft to young people of color, and became a preservation instructor at a nonprofit community cooking school.
She moved her operation out of her apartment and to La Cocina, an incubator kitchen for low-income women, immigrants and women of color in San Francisco. She took business-planning classes and hired a food scientist to check her chemistry. She became a certified master preserver.
Ms. Simley was making about 7,000 jars a year, but couldn’t find a way to scale up her business. She didn’t have wealthy friends, family money or the kind of connections or credit lines she saw among other craft food makers around her.
“Even though I would try and look and ask, I just didn’t have the same kind of opportunities I saw other people get,” she said.
In her acceptance speech, she challenged the mostly white crowd to shift power within the food system toward immigrants, women, people of color and queer communities.
“Right now is time to join me and the producers, farmers and workers who look like me to work tirelessly in being better,” she said. Ms. Simley wanted to write a jam book, but a contract never came. She thought a lot about whether she could ever build the kind of fair and equitable jam empire she once dreamed of.
“I felt like I was always on the periphery of something I could not quite penetrate,” she said.
In 2018, after almost a decade, she put away her jam pots and decided to lean into her experience in public policy and community organizing. She is now director of the office of racial equity for the city and county of San Francisco.
The Good Food Awards, which started 11 years ago, are considered by many to be the gold standard in the craft food arena. The judges are experts in the awards’ 17 categories. The criteria for ingredients, methods and business practices are rigorous.
This year, they had about 1,900 entries. For the first time — at Ms. Simley’s urging — organizers waived the $78 submission fee for people of color. About 20 percent of the entrants identified as people of color. Only one of the 55 companies entering the preserves categories identified as Black-owned.
“It’s tough for BIPOC crafters and people who are from historically unrepresented communities,” said Christopher Bailey, who helps small producers grow their businesses and owns Bloom Caramel in Portland, Ore., which makes small-batch caramel using coconut milk instead of butter.
In July, he joined a new equity task force set up by the Good Food Foundation to examine how to make its premier competition for cheesemakers, beekeepers and other provisioners less white.
The organization is examining whether the very nature of its rules and categories contribute to the cultural exclusion in the craft food world. The rules require that ingredients be seasonal, local and, preferably, organic, which might disqualify a brilliant Jamaican hot sauce maker from the Bronx who uses habanero peppers she buys from the corner produce stand.
Pickles, honey and elixirs like bitters have their own categories, but products like soy sauce or sambal fall into subsets of the general pantry category, competing against fish sauce, curry sauce or miso.
“I have clients that do West African hibiscus brew or Argentine chimichurri. They are such neat products, but they are hard to categorize,” Mr. Bailey said. “They’re still handcrafted products with all of the attention and thoughtfulness and quality, but they don’t hold the same value in the marketplace.”
The seeds of the modern craft food wave were planted during the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, and grew during an era that saw the growth of Slow Food, national organic standards and farmers’ markets.
“I have watched these waves and waves and waves of agrarian movements since the ’50s,” Dr. Sorensen said. Only recently have a significant number of people started to notice that the movement was awfully “white territory,” she said.
The idea that Black people might be engaging in any number of agrarian pursuits “has been for many people just an absolute eye opener — even for many Black people,” she said. “Oh, you mean there are Black farmers? Black cowboys? Black people know how to milk cows and make jam?”
Dr. Sorensen is a member of the Sistas Who Can. She’s not much of a jammer, although she put up some muscadines and peaches last year.
“I’m probably the least good jam maker on the planet, so I make a lot of what I call ice cream sauce,” she said.
She and others said that Black or white, all jammers work from a desire to preserve the season, a dedication to science-based food safety and an ethos of thrift and deliciousness.
Historically, preserving food was perhaps more about the realities of rural life than race. But for African-Americans, there was always an added layer.
“The legacy of Black foodways has been about survival and culture preservation as a pathway to agency,” said Therese Nelson, a food writer and chef who founded the website Black Culinary History in 2008. “Having your larder full means something different to us. You can’t touch me if my larder is full.”
Ms. Nelson, 39, grew up in Newark, N.J., eating jelly from the grocery store. Her grandparents were of the civil rights generation, heading north during the latter part of the Great Migration, which saw millions of African-Americans leave home to escape the segregated South.
She isn’t a jammer, but her grandparents would make pilgrimages back to South Carolina and carry back a few quart jars of muscadine jam.
“My granddaddy would ration it out,” she said. “You’d get a couple of tablespoons every couple weeks.”
The taste connected the family to its ancestors, some of whom likely perfected their preserving techniques at labor in white kitchens and passed them on as a way to keep family culture intact even when times were hard.
But that narrative can also be a burden for Black jammers, locking them into a role white investors and customers expect them to play.
“In no way are we trying to hide culture or get around it, but it’s important to start seeing things outside of that ‘I started my jam because my grandmother was a slave,’” said Ms. Rouse, the owner of Trade Street Jam Company. “No. I started it because I am a foodie and I went to culinary school.”
She was raised in the Midwest, traveling the world with her mother. She graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and ran the cafe in the Condé Nast building in Manhattan. She fell in love with jamming after she started going to craft food markets like Smorgasburg, which was started by the same people who launched the Brooklyn Flea in 2008.
Since then, she and her jam, which she flavors with ingredients like ginger, rose water and merlot, have made it to the pages of People magazine and have been featured on Food Network. In June, sales hit $70,000.
“Everyone wants to hear this from nothing to something story,” she said. “I want to talk about how I didn’t come from a poor family.”
Producing a good jam is the easy part. “It’s everything that comes after,” she said. “It’s easier for white makers to get these opportunities than for people of color. These opportunities come to them a little easier. And if they make this kind of mistake, people are more willing to forgive.”
Ms. Simley still makes the occasional pot of jam, and sometimes teaches. She is at peace with her retirement from jamming. But sometimes, something like #JamGate happens, and the inequities snap into sharp relief.
Unwanted mold, she explained, is always a sign of a larger problem.
“You can scrape and change the symptom, but not the system,” she said. “You see this in every aspect of the food industry. Why do we create a system where we uphold and prioritize and lionize white mediocrity over Black excellence? There is so much Black talent out there that is ignored and looked over and underinvested in. We have to be real. That is what is happening.”