Jessica Sowls is owner and chef of Home Ec., an Indianapolis based jam and pickle kitchen. If you’ve ever sampled any of her creations you know how transcendent (yes, I’m going there) an expertly made jam can be. Learn more about the life of a jam-maker from the sweetest one in town, and make sure you get your jam/ jelly/ marmalade game straight.
1| How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about crafting/art?
I usually say something like “I make fancy jam and pickles,” and then elaborate if people seem interested. I always feel awkward talking about it, as it’s such a grandma/bourgeoisie mashup.
2| Why do you make/design things?
I have artists in my family, so it was a natural thing to do while growing up. Once creating things is in your blood, no other work will ever be as satisfying.
3| What do you love about your job?
The autonomy! I can work when I want to, take breaks when I want to, and make what I want to make. I also love the variety of things that need to be done as a one-person business. I do everything- from bookkeeping to social media to selling at farmers’ markets to picking fruit at orchards to experimenting in the kitchen. I love that I found a niche where I can be creative and make a living (albeit modest) at the same time.
4| Was being a working artist always your plan or was there an “aha” moment?
Being an artist was the plan, yes. Being a jam and pickle maker, no. I went to art school and wasn’t a good cook by any means. I was always interested in DIY stuff though, and when I moved into an apartment with a really great kitchen I started cooking a lot and canning. Around that time I had an art show in one of Big Car’s old spaces in the Murphy building (I think this was 2010ish). I was doing food paintings and embroidery, and I set up a little table in the gallery to sell my jam too. People bought it, and I started selling more jams, pickles, and cookies in my friend Casey Roberts’ art studio every First Friday after that. I did that for a couple years before getting confident enough to apply for a booth at the Indy Winter Farmers’ Market, where I got my official start in 2012.
5| How do you work, and where?
I rent part of Lick Ice Cream’s kitchen at Circle City Industrial Complex. We both used to rent a shared kitchen in a church basement that was pretty cramped and old, with equipment that broke down a lot, nosey churchgoers asking if we believed in Jesus while we were working, and my stuff occasionally getting stolen. Lick has this great commercial kitchen at CCIC now that they built out and invited me to join them. I am forever grateful for that.
As for how I work, it really depends on what needs to get done. In the kitchen I voraciously listen to podcasts and music to keep my mind occupied since most of the work is purely physical- prepping fruit and veggies, washing dishes, and labeling jars can get really boring after a few hours.
6| How did you come up with your current (and future, and past) jam and pickle flavors? Which ones are the most popular?
I use a combination of others’ recipes and my own. Inspiration often comes from flavors I encounter in other types of food, and I look at a lot of cookbooks. There are limits to how much I can be truly creative with preserving, as long-term safety is the reason that preserved foods are the way they are.
7| Where do you source your ingredients?
I buy from many local farms as fruits and veggies come into season. In the summer I will often pick the fruit myself from places like Prelock Blueberry Farm and neighborhood fruit trees (this year so far I’ve scored sour cherries, plums, and black raspberries). What I can’t get locally I will buy from wholesalers, though I try to adhere to a US-grown policy, as I hate the idea of using fruit shipped halfway around the world. I do have to make an exception for pineapple and vanilla beans though, as that’s the only place they grow!
8| Can you pickle anything? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve pickled?
I’ve yet to see anyone pickle potatoes, but you can pretty much throw some vinegar on anything and say it’s pickled. It’s a whole other level to be able to can or ferment the food and end up with something edible. Not sure which is the weirdest, but I’ve pickled winter squash, morel mushrooms, and starfruit. They were all really good.
9| What’s your favorite way to use one of your jams or pickles? Do you have a recipe to share?
I’m pretty boring when it comes to using jam and pickles. I eat my jam on toast and pickles straight from the jar. Both can be surprisingly good in homemade salad dressings. A spoonful of jam in a cocktail instead of simple syrup is good too.
10| If you could swap lives with another artist, who would that person be?
It would be fun to experience the life of someone very different, like Kanye or someone like that, who is the opposite of me in so many ways. We’re all human, but what other similarities would there be? I’d especially love to be inside the head of a man for a little while to see what goes on in there.
11| What makes a handmade object valuable?
Value is completely subjective. For me the value lies in a connection to the object in a sentimental way or in appreciation of aesthetic qualities.
12| Using that definition, what’s the most valuable object you own?
Boring answer, but probably my car, which I’m terribly attached to sentimentally and aesthetically (it’s a 1980s Volvo that I’ve had for 15 years). It’s the only object I think I would be devastated to lose.
13| Tell us one true thing about yourself that people don’t believe when you tell them.
Maybe that I do my own car repair? Since my car is 30 years old I’ve had to learn how to fix a lot of things on it myself, and when done successfully it’s a really empowering feeling.
14| Give us three more non-crafting-related details about you or your life.
I grew up in rural Minnesota, on top of a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River. I was a notoriously picky eater, though I always liked jam and pickles. Before coming to Indiana for grad school, I lived and worked all over the Southwest US, as well as the obligatory stint in Brooklyn (which was punctuated by 9/11).
Side question- what’s the difference between jam and jelly?
Jam is made with whole fruit, and jelly just the juice. Preserves are generally chunkier than jam, and conserves contain nuts and/or dried fruit. Marmalade is made with whole citrus fruit, rind and all. Sometimes I see people calling other things marmalade because it’s a cool word, but it’s not marmalade if it’s not citrus-based.
Need more preserves? You can find Home Ec. on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter @homeecpreserves. You can also find Home Ec. right here on the Homespun shelves in perfect little stocking stuffer/ last minute/ work party/ hostess gift sizes. They are just the sweetest little treat. Thank you Jessica!