I first went to pick beach plums with my neighbor, Mr. Cook, two summers ago. I anticipated the experience through Martha-Vision: there would be a soft wind off the water on Sandy Hook, the early morning sun splashing across the landscape in shades of honey. The reality was a 10-minutes-after-crack-of-dawn trip that included rampant boot-level cacti and mosquitoes that swooped like bombadiers over 1945 Dresden. The picking was good, but those wretched creatures—their constant humming in my ears as they got me in their cross-hairs—stung me through jeans, a jacket, the bandanna on my head, and copious amounts of Deep Woods Off. Mr. Cook, an octogenarian and lifelong outdoorsman who shoots his Thanksgiving turkey every year, didn’t notice.
Sandy Hook is a narrow slice of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River, just a few miles south of Manhattan. Mr. Cook has been picking beach plums there, from the same clearing, for as long as he can remember. The plums grow on bushes on a landscape that looks very much like the American Southwest, within scrubby vegetation that’s tough enough to grow in sand and endure both scalding sun and occasional flooding. They look just like regular plums, but are as small as cherries. Every year Mr. Cook picks a 1950s enamelware-potful and brings them to a woman in a nearby town, where she converts them into his all-time favorite jelly. Me, I like jam, so that’s what I made. It was tart and sweet, but quite unlike ordinary plums. Intriguing.
When Mr. Cook was growing up in the early part of the last century, only certain people were allowed to pick beach plums on Sandy Hook. When I asked how his family came to be among them, he said they had a friend who had a permit allowing her to go. I did a little research and learned that when the Lenni Lenape sold the parcel of land to the new settlers, a stipulation was added to the contract that allowed the native people to come back and pick beach plums every summer. So it could be that his family friend was among the few who could go.
The spot remains a popular if hush-hush place for picking beach plums. I’m not sure if the old permits stand, but I do know the state Parks System, which operates on the place, doesn’t like people picking there. Which is why Mr. Cook and I showed up with fishing poles in the back of the truck. He handed me an old cap like his to wear, and we smiled all pretty pretty at the rangers at the check-in gate. This year I went after 4pm, when the Park doesn’t charge admission, and bypassed the rangers entirely.
Before heading out I tried a folk recipe for keeping mosquitoes away. My sister found it online. You drink 2 teaspoons of cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water. It’s like slugging Hidden Valley house dressing straight from the bottle. But the critters laughed at Deep Woods Off, as you recall. This was my recourse.
Apparently there are beach plum bushes all over Sandy Hook, but I only know of one patch. It’s a right and a left, by car. In other words, not hard to get to. But I couldn’t find the street. I tried five times—yeah—and just when I started wondering if dementia or basic early senility was setting in, it dawned on me that maybe the government had decided to try to pull the old wool over my eyes and turn what was once a street into a bike path.
Ha. I am SO on to them.
It was slim pickins this year—I think I was maybe a week too late and someone else got to them first. (It wasn’t Mr. Cook. I checked.) But I picked a good amount, and I hit up one more really random place in Long Branch where I knew of a single bush, and picked enough to make a bit of jam.
I admit I don’t use a real recipe to make beach plum jam, or any other kind of jam, for that matter. Many years ago I read a woman’s account of her first time jamming, and I’ve followed her example ever since. She was amazed at how easy it was: You put fruit and sugar and water in a pot and boil the hell out of it, she said. With some fruit, you need to add pectin, which helps the jam to set. Don’t worry about it here. (Adding a good amount of sugar helps to set it, too. I don’t like too much sugar, though, so I tolerate jam that’s on the runny side. No worries.) Keep in mind that a ripening, pinkish-red beach plum contains more pectin than a fully-ripe, deep-purple one, so mix in about 25% ripening plums with the others. It’ll add a counter-tartness as well. Balance is good.
Here’s how I make beach plum jam. Play with my recipe if you’re an experienced jammer or if you’re feeling all devil-may-care. I always thought this jam would be great with a pinch of cardamom, or with brown sugar instead of white. Local honey is a great stand-in for sugar.
Wash the plums. They’re wild, so you don’t have to worry about pesticides. How nice is that? De-leaf them and de-stem them. Remove the pits with a cherry pitter, if you have one. If not, a sharp paring knife on a cutting board will work. It just takes longer.
Put them in a deep pot and add enough water to cover them. Add maybe 1 cup of sugar for every cup of plums. Add more if you want to have it on toast or stirred into yogurt; add less if you want to serve it as a sauce alongside poultry or game. Now boil (the hell out of it). Your goal is to let the water cook off and soften the fruit into yummy purple goo. Stir the mixture often with a wooden spoon and don’t let it cook down too much or the sugar will burn.
Ta dah. You just made jam. Take it off the heat and let it cool a bit, then store in your fridge. Eat it up within a week or so. Won’t be a problem.
P.S. I got one mosquito bite while picking. Revenge was mine, though—I probably tasted like vinegar.