In all her 74 years of living my mother, as far as I know, has never attended any kind of tasting event before. Formal explorations of gastronomy were never her cup of tea. Rarely would she even try new things outside of, what I would wager, is a multi-decade spanning collection of eating and drinking habits. One such eating habit was her favoured Irish staple of bread, butter and jam - a snack that she had inherited from her late mother and one that had an omnipresence in my childhood similar to that of Catholicism; though thankfully without the trademark holy guilt.
I’ve spoken to Neelma, the owner of Jars of Goodness, many times about many things, surprisingly none of them actually about the Jars of Goodness jams, marmalades or hot sauces. Neelma’s evenly measured speech patterns and the patience she has in formulating responses leave the impression that she is truly present with you. I also sense that somewhere behind her eyes and beneath her slow gestures that she is a formidable woman, though I am not sure in what ways. These are perhaps the two traits that I find the most enviable in others and I say them to give a stranger a sense of Neelma and to maybe highlight that she has the type of personality that makes me instantly interested in whatever it is she wants to share; she has the type of personality that made me want to try the Jars of Goodness jams. So given the opportunity to sample these nuanced, unusual and uncompromisingly fair-trade condiments I wanted to pull my mother in on tasting them.
It would be a nice narrative device to say that in doing so, and in sharing some time with my mother, I realise in the concluding paragraph of this piece that it was a sub-conscious attempt to find another avenue - in a scarce number of avenues - that allow me to simply connect with her; I knew this up front, in truth it was the reason I wanted to write this piece. By doing so I walk the line of being overly personal and self-indulgent in a medium that doesn’t necessarily warrant or even want it. Yet I want to connect with her, and as we both grow in our dwindling years I take each and every opportunity to do so.
I sit across from Marie, my mother, at the sun-bleached wooden table in her cream coloured kitchen. Careful of not scratching the already marked wood, we have placed three dinner mats between us, with each having a large plate centred on it. I do my best to put on an air of professionalism for this tasting by ensuring the water we drink between every bite is room tempertaure, by having a selection of side plates and folded-squared tissues, and the labelled jars hidden from my mother to ensure a blind test. Our plan is to taste each condiment three ways: a small amount to be eaten off a spoon, a decent amount liberally spread over bread and butter, and a dollop or so to sit atop a small wedge of goats cheese on sourdough; the latter was inspired by her sister, my aunt, whom she visited the previous day and had sugar-free jam over cheese, a combination she likely considered to be her new midday snack. Despite rarely trying new things, she was often charmingly excitable over the tiniest adjustments in how she ate.
As the autumn noon lights the kitchen through two large pane windows I dart back and forth from the table to a black faux-marble countertop, preparing and bringing the samples back to our plates, giving my best impression of a top-tier server. I also have music softly playing from my phone, done so for a strange worry that a silence would fall between us and sap any social momentum she and I might gather. The first condiment we try is an orange, ginger and coriander marmalade. My mother’s face elongates with pursed lips, an expression I interpret as both being impressed and also relieved that this might be a painless affair after all.
Marie was the fourth child of eight and was raised in a rural town in Meath, an eastern county in Ireland. Her father died when she was a child and her mother, Tess, raised the whole family alone, a privilege my grandmother had to fight for. Supposedly both social services and the local priest called to the house and attempted to take Tess’ eight children from her, deeming that she was not fit to raise them without her late husband. My grandmother convincingly threatened to ‘bate the shite out of them’ if either the priest or the agent set foot beyond the wall that fenced her small cottage. By sheer force of will Tess fended off both the Irish government and God, so to speak.
Marie’s inner circle wou-
‘I can’t tell what this is,’ my mother muses, licking her lips, thrown off by the fractional peculiarities of the marmalade.
‘There’s three ingredients,’ I say, ‘aside from orange there is something earthy and something spicey – though it’s not a spice, it’s actually a vegetable.’ I do my best to guide her but ultimately I think my hints are more of a hindrance. Stubbornly she resigns in trying to guess the flavours.
‘Ginger and Coriander,’ I tell her and she nods and ‘ahs.’
I gather our plates, clean our spoons and prepare the next samples: a savoury fig, tomato and caramelised onion jam I hope she’ll enjoy with the goats cheese.
Marie’s inner circle would know her as gregarious, kind and a little aloof though to the rest of the world she might seem shy and reserved. Despite this, I can testify that on the few times when necessary she could become a force of nature similar to that of Tess. I am mindful of my mother’s privacy and in knowing that she will likely read this (and likely not tell me) I will be scarce in the details of her life. I will, however, say that Marie very much takes after her mother in that she very well might be the strongest person I have ever met. I did not always appreciate this, particularly in the folly of my youth, but it grew more apparent as I got older. I had a similar childhood to my mother in that I too lost my father at a young age – four – but thankfully Ireland was progressive enough a country by then to see women as capable of raising families on their own. My father dying meant that she became my singular sun to which I orbited around and was my direct source to learn of the world. When I recall those times I am amazed at the grace that my mother conducted herself with. Trying to grapple with death, my favourite question as a child was the mono-syllabic Why – why did he die? Why am I the only kid in school without a father? Why do we die to begin with? Why did God choose to take dad away? And why wouldn’t he choose to take you too? - and for all the crippling uncertainty that existed for me as a bereft four year old, my mother stoically absorbed my questions and comforted me in the ways I can only assume she herself was comforted with as a child. The undercurrent of these consolations was faith: she didn’t know why God did such a thing, but trust that God won’t do it again.
Marie’s faith was that of her own mother’s – the Catholic Church – and while I don’t have a relationship with religion and the death of my father made me a non-believer from a remarkably young age, I suppose I did have faith of sorts in my mother who was literally and figuratively a higher power. This faith was a kind of non-verbal, guttural compass that trusted in her to prevent me from bumping into walls as I walked blindfolded through early life. And I’m nearly thirty now, and she seventy-four, and life is good and she and I are great, and so the faith seemed well-placed. Laying aside the trauma of a los-
My mother’s phone rings and without concern for the tasting she answers and floats toward the south-east facing window to have a chat with the caller.
‘Ma!’ I say, ‘you’d be thrown out of any decent tasting room for taking a call during.’
With a mouthful of bread, cheese and jam she jovially tells me to feck off. I can tell from the warm but instant bickering that the caller is my mother’s partner, a stoney man from Galway alarmingly allergic to rest and who is currently nursing a back injury. I gather from the call that he is in pain but will not take painkillers nor even lie down for thirty minutes. Marie resists his protests by repeating ‘don’t be talking shite,’ but her quietening tone is that of a woman who recognises a lost cause. I sip at the tepid water beside me and take a final bite of the rich and intriguing jam on the creamy cheese. While doing so I scribble on my notebook the details of this phonecall and note that I feel like this diversion thematically fits into what I’m trying to say, though I’m not sure how.
I stand and prepare our third sample, a condiment called Paradise in a Jar. My mother hangs up and returns to her seat. Reading through the ingredients of this pineapple, coconut and citrus jam I say from across the kitchen that this might be a funky one. I look to my mother who endearingly likens a deer in headlights – she doesn’t like trying new things – but I reassure her that Jars of Goodness has won awards for this jam.
Laying aside the trauma of a lost parent I do concede to being a particularly unusual child. My mother had me when she was fourty-five – I like to joke that I’m the Catholic surprise – and I was the baby brother to four siblings. In a family of impressively pragmatic thinkers and workers I was the wayward youngest. Not in any problematic sense, just that I was utterly absent in most mental capacities, inefficient at everyday tasks and profoundly ‘away with the fairies’, as the Irish proverb likes to say. In summation, the opposite of my siblings. When I think back with how feverishly I played pretend as a child, how I exhausted those around me with my eccentricities, or how withdrawn into music and films I grew in my melancholy years, I don’t blame my mother for not really knowing what to do with me or how to relate. She who came from a stoic family – even by 1950s standards – and whose kids up until me were, obviously unique, but overall reliably normal. I wonder even now if she sees me as some alien figure, worlds completely removed in every sense outside of family. There is little common ground on which we can meet, our interest in life diverge in almost every way aside from the value of loving and appreciating family. I say all this to reiterate the simple truth that I try to connect where I can.
My mother’s expression is wary as she sees me struggling to get a balanced spoonful of the Paradise in a Jar. The thick beige and chunky glob appears to defy all rules she associates with jam.
‘Sorry,’ I say absently, ‘I’m just trying to give you a balanced spoonful that’s not too chunky.’
‘What are the chunks?’
‘I can’t tell you,’ I say, ‘but not to fear, I think you’ll like it.’ I repeat that this jam has won awards, wondering if the high regard of Kenyan food critics is something my mother would appreciate. The spoonful goes down well, a boozy thick sweetness with sparks of tang, and it works nicely on the bread and butter but we’re both especially impressed with how well it works with the savoury goats cheese. Across two empty plates I ask her an open question about eating jam as a childhood snack, and how I always associated the condiment with her and Nanny Tess and even her sisters, including the late Bernie who had taught my mother how to make marmalade.
‘Everyone was reared on it,’ she says and offers no more. Even with me, the most probing of her children, she is notably cagey about her personal life. Whenever our conversation either naturally or unnaturally veers into the territory of vulnerability on her part we both grow cautious; her because she is not used to such things, and me for not wanting to pry too much.
I once took a very deliberate approach in getting to know Marie and her biography up into the present by interviewing her. As this article might suggest I am an embarrassingly sentimental man and I had an idea to put together a project in which I interviewed all of those I was closest to in my life, starting with my first core relationship: my mother. It happened on a St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day for the non-Irish) and over a brandy and hot whiskey between herself and myself, respectively, we had about an hour long chat about the details of her life in her words. While we both agreed that this was a wholesome endeavour, excessive vulnerability slipped through in innocuous ways neither of us had anticipated. One such way was my third question for her, one to warm up the conversation, where I asked her to tell me about her favourite memory. I’ve only seen my mother cry maybe six times, five of which were at the losses of my father, her mother, our dog, her brother and her sister; the sixth was when she told me about her favourite memory. By the end of the hour she was exhausted and while I wanted to know more I suggested we finish the interview at another time. That was five years ago, and every time I’ve asked for that elusive part two she has deflected the request, so I’ve since stopped asking.
‘We have one more,’ I say.
‘This Kenyan stuff is not bad,’ she says.
‘This is a funky one,’ I echo from the last sample, though I do not elaborate.
In hindsight I wonder if what I did next was cruel but I don’t think so, merely an injection of levity. From the kitchen counter I remind her that as part of the tasting protocol we must sample the condiment in every form – the spoon, the bread and butter, and the goats cheese – and confidant in her palette so far my mother absently tells me she knows. I am cavalier in preparing the samples and bringing them back to the table, doing my best not to make my mother suspicious. Her eyes fall downward to the samples and settle beneath a frown.
‘It’s spread very thin,’ she says examining the pale green stretched across the bread and cheese.
‘It’s a little runnier than the others,’ I say, delicately scooping a couple of drops onto the spoon. My mother is not at all a fan of spicy food nor does she have a tolerance for it. I hand her the spoon and she brings her nose close to the sauce to smell it. Thankfully it does not omit any strong fragrances and so she can’t guess by sight nor smell what she is about to taste. I do my best to remain composed under a restrained smile.
Spoon, bread and butter, and goats cheese. At a taste of each she reacts like a woman desperate not to violently sneeze at mass, her face contorting and drooping into a bow toward her chest with every bite. We laugh hard at the concluding taste and for the sake of her own entertainment, I make a point of not only sampling each item, but eating every crumb and drop of the Jalapeño and Tequila Hot Sauce. I should say that I don’t have a tolerance for spicey foods either.
We continue to laugh after the tasting is done, our eyes watery and our nostrils moist and expansive, and we make a cup of tea and sit opposite each other again across a newly cleared table. It is one of those times where I consider asking of her to do this again, in a non-professional context where we just try different foods, maybe head into the city and try the latest and greatest restaurants, and in some dream world she becomes a food connoisseur in her twilight years. But I know that won’t happen and I’ve long ago made peace with the fact that those kind of things don’t need to happen for us to be close, for our version of close. We have a relationship that simply is, and in our own way we’ve found a way to let one another be as they are in that relationship.
I confess that the word Father to me, in the strictest sense, is more conceptual than anything I have developed a relationship with. It is unsurprising when I have literally three memories of my father, and while I see his picture and know he is mine it’s as if takes up the place behind the role of father, rather than the role itself, a kind of association my mind makes that is more symbolic than emotional. Whereas the word Mother comes with a depth of nuance and complexity that no novel, painting or song has come even close to capturing. And the remarkable thing about that is that our relationship is not particularly complicated or interesting, it’s just that of a mother and son. It’s something truly unique and truly common, an almost paradox. I don’t have any great moral to ponder or prescribe at the end of this piece, a written body that is and isn’t about a Kenyan condiment producer, in the same way that is and isn’t about my mother. Even still, the bottom line is she liked the jams, as did I, and I owe Jars of Goodness for the modest blessing of being able to sit down with my mother and make each other laugh for a glowing Autumn afternoon.