WHEN LIFE GAVE ALETHA THOMAS MANGOES AND MOUNTAIN APPLES, SHE DID THE ONLY THING THAT CAME NATURALLY TO HER—SHE JAMMED.
TEXT BY JON LETMAN | IMAGES BY JOHN HOOK
In 2010, Aletha Thomas was teaching at a middle school on Kaua‘i when furlough days hit Hawai‘i’s public schools. Overnight, Thomas’ hours and pay were slashed, and she was shut out of her own school campus. For her, it turned into quite literally a jarring experience.
When a friend invited Thomas to sell homemade food alongside her at a farmers market, Thomas decided to give it a try. Looking for ways to make up pay lost as a result of the furloughs, Thomas whipped up a few jars of mango jam to see if they would move. To her delight, the jam was a hit, selling out quickly and prompting her to make another batch, then another. After three consecutive weeks of sold-out jam, Thomas decided that if life was going to give her lemons, she would make marmalade.
Today, Thomas’ Monkeypod Jam includes 50 types of jams, jellies, marmalades, curds, butters, and sauces that rotate week by week. Her fruit-preserving enterprise follows the basic tenet she learned growing up in a family in which her grandmothers preserved fruit to help get through the bitter winters of Minnesota and Saskatchewan: “Preserve only what grows around you, and only in season.” Closely following nature’s rhythm means there is no time to slack. It also means that when a farmer (one of the 30 growers she buys from) calls to tell her they have a mother lode of ripe tomatoes that needs moving immediately, she moves. Two hundred pounds of ripe tomatoes later, Thomas has concocted one of her best-selling items: spiced tomato jam that, flavored with pepper and cumin, hums with notes of chutney.
As a committed supporter of local agriculture, Thomas uses only Kaua‘i-grown produce in her jams, even if it means some popular items aren’t always available. That’s only natural, she says, adding: “We believe strongly there’s enough food here on Kaua‘i. We have farmers growing for us, and we really want to start with our neighbors and our families.”
A certified master food preserver, Thomas utilizes wide, traditional French Mauviel copper pots that allow food to be heated quickly and evenly in order to capture freshness without overcooking. Unopened, Monkeypod Jam products remain shelf-stable for about six months. And because they aren’t filled with a chemistry lab’s worth of artificial preservatives, they don’t stay good indefinitely. “Our ingredients list is very simple, like what your grandmother would have put in a jar,” she says.
Each six-ounce jar is filled with freshly picked produce and basic ingredients like dried spices and small amounts of sugar. The product line includes banana foster jam, Tahitian lime curd, papaya chutney, starfruit ginger jelly, lemquat marmalade, and orange chocolate sauce. Reflecting on the importance of preserving fruit, Thomas says that all too often, people today turn a blind eye to seasonality, demanding a uniform, steady supply of the same produce year-round. “As consumers, we’ve become very spoiled,” she says. For Thomas, fruit preservation is one way to eat and live in harmony with nature while extending the period food can be enjoyed. For her, preserving is an invitation to rediscover the joy of fresh food processed at its peak.
Monkeypod Jam has been a hit with visitors because it’s an easy, portable way to bring home something exotic and distinctly Hawaiian. Fresh jam captures the essence of Hawai‘i and allows the bearer to share an otherwise intangible sense of place. Who in Wisconsin, in the dead of winter, would expect a jar of guava butter or jaboticaba jelly? For similar reasons, locals treat themselves or send a jar in care packages to loved ones, knowing that the sight and smell of liliko‘i curd or mountain apple pepper jelly is transformative, reminding far-away friends and family of home, transporting them back to their childhoods to that tree they used to climb in tutu’s garden on bright summer days so long ago.
Look for Monkeypod Jam at farmers markets around Kaua‘i and at R.Fields Wine Company. You can also purchase a limited amount of products online at monkeypodjam.com.