| Meet Joanne Carroll, Pomegranate Lady.
As she greets guests at her Walnut Drive home on a sunny October afternoon, Carroll lets her T-shirt announce what’s in store for those stepping inside, “We Be Jammin'”.
Since moving into her San Tomas home more than six years ago, Carroll has become a pro at making jams and jellies using fruit harvested from the orchard on her Campbell property. And while winter’s citrus and summer’s peaches and plums have made it into jam and jelly gift baskets, or those occasional pies, it’s fall’s pomegranate that warrants a party.
The guests settle into the Carroll’s backyard, enjoying the last of Indian Summer, as they wait for her to begin the jamming festivities. Snacking on tortilla chips and homemade guacamole and chatting with Joanne’s husband, Hal, the party-goers are surrounded by the 17 fruit trees that keep their cupboards stocked with jam and jelly throughout the year.
The pomegranate tree is nestled on the southwest corner of the property, and Hal admits he first thought it was merely a “bunch of sticks” when they moved in. Hal said it took them nine years to find their ideal home, as he recalls pulling up to the modest one-story home for the first time with the realtor
“We thought, ‘Why did you bring us here? It doesn’t look like much,'” Hal said. “We walked through the house and fell in love.”
The fruit trees that border the nearly 14,000-square–foot lot keep the couple busy year-round making jam, jellies, pies and liqueurs. But since the Carrolls bought their home in late winter, discovering their orchard has been a month-by-month surprise.
That winter their lemon, orange and tangerine trees blossomed. As the weather became warmer, the fruit grew more bountiful. Then as the summer months arrived so did the apricots, cherries, peaches, apples, pears, plums and figs. Then, as summer gave way to fall, that “bunch of sticks” turned out to be a pomegranate tree, bearing fruit with red-speckled skin and more than 800 seeds of tart juice for the intrepid eater.
As they had with their other fruits, Joanne and Hal decided to try making pomegranate jelly. Since jellies are made using fruit juices, Hal searched the Internet for directions on how to extract juice from the labor intensive fruit.
After freezing the pomegranates, Hal removed each seed singularly–a time consuming task–before juicing the fruit.
Not only did that method produce only a half cup of juice after he extracted the seeds from 10 pomegranates, Hal’s hands were stained blue for two weeks. Promegranate juice turns from ruby red to bluish purple once the juice settles.
Looking for a better solution, the couple turned to their trusty citrus press. Using the stainless steel press with a heavy lever, they were able to get a half cup of juice from only two pomegranates. That first year, they made four cases of jelly. Each case holds 12 eight-ounce jars.
By March, pomegranate jelly recipients were begging for more.
“OK,” Joanne recalls telling them. “But you need to help.”
That was four years ago. Now, with Joanne’s help, guests gather at her home ready to make their own jelly that will last until the next fall party.
But for the nearly 15 neighbors and friends that gathered for the pomegranate jelly-making affair, the day of jamming is just another way for Hal and Joanne to bring the San Tomas neighborhood together.
Although the pomegranate fruit is a new diversion for the Carrolls, it’s one of the oldest fruits known to man. A native of Persia, the fruit was brought to California by Spanish mission priests and has been noted by Homer, Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Historically, the pomegranate can be found throughout biblical texts, and in the Jewish faith is a symbol of fertility, bounty and eternal life. Mohammad, the founder of Islam believed the fruit destroyed envy and hatred. Later, the Italians considered it a royal fruit.
Some biblical researchers even speculate it was the pomegranate, or seeded apple, that was the true fruit that tempted Adam and Eve and lead to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Similarly, in Greek mythology, when Persephone swore off food while captive in Hades, the goddess of spring and fruit could not resist the pomegranate. According to the myth, the goddess spit out all but six seeds, each seed symbolizing a month she would spend away from the harvest, creating the annual harvest cycle.
Today, the pomegranate has been dubbed the most labor intensive fruit because of its leather skin and numerous seeds. And while Joanne has recruited help in making the jelly, much of the heavy lifting is done beforehand.
“They do all the hard work, we just come in and do the easy stuff,” laughs Gail Barbin, an old neighbor of the Carroll’s, who returns for the jelly parties.
Before the party, Joanne and a few neighbors pick pomegranates and spend up to 20 hours juicing five gallons of pomegranate juice. Over the years, the Carrolls have “put dibs” on the neighborhood’s pomegranates. Neighbors Ellen Dorsa, Bruce Peat and Janet Rinck are among those who donate their pomegranates for jamming. Occasionally, the couple receives doorstep donations from strangers who don’t use their pomegranates but have heard of the Carrolls’ jamming parties.
Dorsa is grateful that Joanne fetches the pomegranates from her yard, because often, she leaves the fruit for the birds to eat. For Rinck, however, it became the beginning of a friendship.
Rinck had lived on White Oaks Road prior to moving to Walnut Drive and knew only a handful of neighbors. The first day she and her husband, Paul, moved into their new home, Joanne came walking up their driveway and introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m the pomegranate lady. I’m here to pick your pomegranates,” Joanne said.
“And we’ve been friends ever since,” Rinck said.
In Joanne’s blue-tiled kitchen, jammers gather at her kitchen island for jamming lessons. Joanne has invited both new neighbors and old ones, by e-mail and door-to-door knocking. Neighbors who have moved away, like the Ceran family, still come back to make jelly. Heather Ceran, a teenager, is the youngest of the crowd and can recount her best jamming parties. But her all-time favorite jelly is pomegranate jelly. While waiting her turn, Heather walks around the house with glittered eyes and a ruffled skirt, holding up her cell phone, searching for signal.
“Who’s going to be next to make jam?” bellows Joanne, looking out into her crowded kitchen. Barbin and her mother, Helen Wilbur, step up to the plate. Jamming is usually done in twos, with one person measuring and the other watching the stove. Each batch takes approximately a half hour, and the party usually manages eight batches an afternoon.
Joanne instructs the women to measure cups of pomegranate juice through a large strainer to catch the few seeds and meat left in the juice. The duo then adds sugar, butter, a hint of brown sugar, and pectin to thicken the jelly.
By the time the jelly is ready to go into the jars Joanne’s washed and prepared, she lets the crowd taste the jelly. Joanne scoops hot jelly out of the pot with a spoon, and announces, “Lollipop time!”
Heather wants to lick the spoon. “It’s good,” she said. “It’s like candy.”
Joanne scoops a large measuring cup into the mixture and funnels the jelly into eight ounce jars. She then places the jars in a canning steamer, which seals the lids to the jar and help preserve the jelly. Most jellies can remain unopened for as long as three years.
Under the canning steamer, Joanne’s eyeglasses fog and the women laugh. Rinck jests that the jamming party was a front to get her neighbors to come over for steam facials.
But mostly, guests exchange ideas on the best ways to eat pomegranate jelly. One woman said no other jelly goes better with peanut butter. Someone else likes it on ice cream, another uses the jelly in place of cranberry sauce on turkey sandwiches. Joanne likes it with lamb.
Beyond jelly, the Carrolls make pomegranate liqueur. Their neighbor, the Rincks, plan to make pomegranate beer with their fruits this year.
On this day like the ones before, jamming experience is both social and personal. Each person names their jars of jelly and Joanne prints out individual jar labels from her Sony Vaio laptop. The Carrolls name their jams and jellies Two Big Cats, after their two big cats, Pandora and Delilah. New neighbors, the Kims, have named their jam Nam Jam, after mother Nam Kim. The Cerans have dubbed their jelly Ceran Wrap, and now it’s mother-daughter duo Barbin and Wilbur’s turn to pick a name.
“Hmm,” Barbin murmurs. “How about ‘Pleasure in a Jar’?”
The group laughs. “That’s it!” her mother seconds.