Aletha Thomas was a teacher on Kaua’I in 2010 when she – along with every other public school teacher in the Islands – was furloughed: Fridays off, no pay. Ever resourceful, Aletha started looking for ways to make extra money. When a friend began selling pastries at the farmers market and asked Aletha to come along, Aletha wondered, “What could I sell?” Mango jam, she decided. Months earlier she’d made a large batch after receiving a hundred pounds of Mangoes, and it had been a hit with friends. So she cooked up six jars and took them to the market. They sold instantly. The next week she cooked twelve jars. They sold instantly. “Hmmm,” thought the furloughed teacher, “I might be onto something.”
She was. Last year Aletha made and sold more than twenty-two thousand jars of jam through her company, Monkeypod Jam. From mango jam she has expanded into creations like liliko’I curd, lemon-sage marmalade and papaya butter. One Monday in early March she had a banner say and made 450 jars of pineapple-mint jam, pinapple –ginger jam and Thitian lime curd. “The stars aligned,” She laughs, noting that most days she averages 140 jars. How does she invent her recipes? Inspiration comes from all over. The pineapple-mint jam, she says was inspired by a mojito at the St. Regis Princeville. The bananas Foster jam is a riff on the dessert. Monkeypod’s most popular jam, spiced tomato, has roots in the American South and Mediterranean. That jam is Aletha’s favorite: “I put it on a hamburger!” She also loves the caracara marmalade which she uses as a glaze, pairs with cheese or mixes with a cocktail.
You could say Aletha was born for this work: She grew up in Oregon with grandmothers and a mother who were expert jam makers. On Kaua’I she is commited to being local: She uses only Kaua’I fruit and buys from more than thirty farmers. “Being able to write checks to them eash week,” she says, “is really gratifying.” Now that she’s making jam full time, does she miss teaching? Turns out she’s found a way back in: “I was just certified as a master food preserver by UC Davis,” she says, “and part of my reponsibiltiy is teaching preserving! So I’ll be back in the classroom.”
- Julia Steele / Photo by Elyse Butler