The moment of truth comes as Debra Harris stirs the pot.
Unlike the cauldron-stirring witches in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Macbeth,” who foreshadow evil while chanting “Double, double toil and trouble,” Harris’s sounds are those of pleasure.
“Yummmm!,” she happily moaned as she swirled a wooden spatula in a pot simmering with huckleberries, bending over to better sniff and savor the sweet scent. “I can’t get past that smell. Oh you’re bubbling now.”
The toil that causes Harris no trouble is concocting homemade jams. It’s a hobby that’s evolved into a surprisingly successful business for Debra and her husband, Roy.
After decades of various jobs — Roy was a logger, Debra has long been involved in many phases of the food industry and both were mushroom pickers and buyers — the couple planned to retire at their Keno area home. But because their experiments with making jams from home-grown and hand-picked fresh fruit literally jelled, they’re putting in even longer hours than ever.
“I know it’s odd for people as old as us” — Debra is 65, Roy just turned 67 — “to jump into something new,” she laughs.
Their business, Oregon Jams: Specialty & Wild Berry Jams, launched last summer when they began selling jars at the Klamath Falls and other regional farmers markets. Their offerings sold quickly. At the Bend Farmers Market, 45 jars of huckleberry jam sold out in two hours. Week after week the pattern repeated itself. At the advice of their daughter, they raised their prices, eventually tripling the original cost.
“I sold out just as fast as we put it up,” Debra chortles, still amazed. “I thought, ‘Maybe there is something to this.’ It was like all the stars aligned.”
The Harris’s pick some fruit — including elderberries, apples, pears and peaches — from their shared orchard in Keno. Some berries come from the Coos Bay area and other Oregon Coast communities. No matter where the berries come from, “I’d rather pick it myself because it’s fun,” Debra insists. “It puts you in contact with the soil, with the earth. It makes your soul real happy to be out there.”
Their multi-varieties of jams are making buyers real happy. Some varieties are straightforward and take only a few hours to make, like raspberry and huckleberry. Others are more involved, specialties like marionberry-raspberry liqueur and peach amaretto. Debra says she uses less sugar than most jam makers to emphasize the fresh fruit and berries — “You need some tartness.” Specialty varieties take days because of the time involved in blending and preparing the liqueur — “The alcohol is cooked off but the flavor remains.”
Because they’re supposedly retired, unlike the jam they liberally lather on bread, the Harris’s are trying not to spread themselves too thin. “It’s Roy and I. We can’t supply it to 28 stores and spend all our weekends at farmers markets. It’s all about quality control for me,” says Debra. “It’s important that it’s organic.”
Master of invention
She credits her husband for devising several jam varieties. “Roy was instrumental in the recipes. He said, ‘Let’s try this and this together,’ and it worked.”
The couple is always testing new recipes and varieties. This spring they have plans to add more specialty jams, including dandelion, fir and spruce tip (“very fruity and very good for you”), manzanita flower, and wild rosehip.
“We’ve always dealt in wild food,” Debra says, noting Roy is a game hunter and she’s made herbal medicines and canned for decades. And for nearly 40 years they’ve been wild mushroom pickers and buyers. As pickers, she remembers making $5 an hour — “That was a lot of money” — and much more during the years when they daily collected 200 to 300 pounds of matsutake mushrooms when buyers were paying up to $600 a pound.
That was then. Now the Harris’s are focusing on their wild berry and specialty jams, a business that’s mushrooming so rapidly they’ve moved their jam sessions from their home kitchen to the Keno Grill’s kitchen during hours the restaurant is otherwise closed. In upcoming weeks they’ll spend three or four days a week cooking jam, at least 45 to 60 dozen jars for each farmers market.
“We’re running low on everything,” Debra says of the happy toil and trouble involved in resupplying their bewitchingly tasty stock of jams. “We had no idea people would love the jam as much as we do.”