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Lifestyle

Makin' it under the tree

Locals spread holiday cheer by making sweet jams and Nilsson-inspired mixes

Ken Schramm pours a glass of his homemade mead.
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Published 11/26/2008

PRESERVING THE LOVE

Every holiday season, self-described "aging hippie" Mary Davis gives out batches of gifts — literally. In her case, it's batches of homemade jams and preserves. Davis first started making jams about 30 years ago, when her neighbor's crabapple tree produced a bumper crop of the small, tart fruits. In order to make something sweeter from them, she cooked them down into a batch of crabapple jelly. And she never looked back, making home preserves for her family and, after her children grew up and moved out, for birthdays, for holidays or for neighborhood fund-raisers in her North Roseland Park neighborhood in Detroit.

Davis says, "People just get so impressed by homemade stuff. There's still an investment involved in it, but it's more an investment of time. You need to have the right equipment for it — a hot-water bath canner, basically a big pot with a rack in the bottom of it so you can seal the jars — so there's a little bit of an initial investment in it."

But once you're set up with the canner, jars and lids, Davis says it's less expensive than you'd think. She adds, "Eastern Market is an excellent source of fruits and vegetables for canning. I have a guy down there in Shed Two who sells apple cider, but over the course of the year I'll get blueberries and cherries and apples and peaches to make jam. I'll tell them I'm making jam or applesauce, and he knows you don't need the stuff that's really perfect — the kind they'd sell to somebody to put in their fruit bowl. If you're canning, you can take less than top-grade fruit — because you're just going to peel it and cook it and mash it up — and you can get that a lot cheaper."

A year-round canning enthusiast, Davis maintains a full larder of jam jars, from which she parcels out gifts year-round. The preserves range from strawberry-lemon marmalade (marmalades are preserves with peels included) to strawberry-sauterne (she says adding the sweet wine gives it a kick) to apple butter to all sorts of jams, including blueberry-cherry, raspberry, blackberry, ginger-peach, spiced plum and apricot. Sometimes, she'll make as many as three batches at once, each batch filling more than a half-dozen 8-ounce jars. For special gifts, she'll cut a circle of decorative fabric and press it down on the lid, screwing down the seal band on top, or adding bows or ribbons.

She says, "As the cost of jars is going up, I encourage people to recycle their jars by bringing them back to me. I came home the other night from a neighborhood meeting and there was a box of jars outside my door!"

Laughing for a moment, she adds, "One of my regular recipients dropped a bag of jam jars on my desk and told me 'These jars are defective!' I asked, 'What's wrong with them?' He told me, 'They're empty!'"


MIXING IT UP

When it the holidays roll around, Harry Wetzel doesn't go shopping; he starts mixing. Though Wetzel — in his capacity as tech director, set dresser and sound designer for Detroit Repertory Theatre — has been putting together soundtracks for productions for years, he claims that wasn't his primary inspiration.

Instead, he points to growing up in the 1970s and being inspired by Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. Wetzel says, "On that album, he covered a whole bunch of standards from different decades, and I remember listening to that record and saying, 'This song and that song really have no connection other than that they're old.'" So, like many of his friends, he began creating mixtapes (he still calls them that, even though he works on CD now) and giving them away.

"You just put greatest hits and intersperse it with sound bites from movies. There were a handful of us making them, and we got comfortable with the 2-act set: two 45-minute sets, one for each side. Of course, now we've accepted the 80-minute set of a CD."

Wetzel, who listens to music constantly, gets a thrill from spreading it around, satisfying his music jones and his creative impulse, all while creating gifts for his friends and family. He personally labels each one, prints out the song list, labels the edge of the jewel case with a fine-point silver marker, covering it with clear tape so it doesn't rub off. For the holidays, he'll make between 20 and 40 mixes to give as gifts, usually based around the same tracks, but tailored to individual personalities.

"You get a theme together for it, but you also think of an individual when you come up the soundtrack. It's a formula: You like to start it with a few good crisp 'up' songs, and you bury the lower tempo songs in the middle third, and you end it with some good, huge, solid, anthemic hits. Everybody's going to have their own recipe.

"Sometimes I've completed a tape and I'll say, 'I'm going to give it to her, but I know she's already got this, this song sort of blows for her, and so you'll put together two or three variations, using the main source tape to make a more raucous version for some friends and an easier version for other friends. You just rebuild it and rearrange the track order until you get a nice program. You can't just put a bunch of songs. They're never as good as the ones you listen to and reorder."

Though he's continually putting together CDs, the mania for mixing kicks into high gear come early November. "Around this time of year, it becomes an obsession. What's the new acquisition? What are the old ones I haven't used in a while? Maybe it's a Stones song we were on the verge of being sick of last year, sometimes it's a song like Petula Clark's "Downtown" or some stupid song that's catchy like Men at Work's "Down Under," or you can slide in a nice classical tune like Claudio Monteverdi's "Chiome d'Oro," which is beautiful and peppy. You can sneak in some nice classical selections for someone who might not seek out classical music.

"It's all about tricking people into listening to our favorite songs," Wetzel kids, adding, "Some years, I've had no money, and that's the only thing I can send out. You know, 'I got nothing this year but my time and a little bit of my heart.'"


SHARING SWEETNESS

It should come as no surprise that metro Detroiter, meadmaker and writer Ken Schramm chooses to give his friends and family his homemade mead over the holidays. Schramm has crusaded to raise the profile of this historical yet little-known beverage since 1988, founding the Mazer Cup, a national mead competition, in 1991, and authoring The Compleat Meadmaker in 2003, which has since gone through four printings. In a good year, he can produce as much as 100 gallons of the honey-based wine, some of which, naturally, is given to friends, family and colleagues.

What is interesting, though, is to hear his reflections upon home brewing. Schramm actually doesn't think of mead as something he's created himself, but follows the chain of its production. Schramm says, "I've often given bottles of mead to my friends, family and co-workers at the holidays. They are gifts that represent me as a person and the effort I put into making something that I hope they enjoy. The meads I have given have been made with honey from Larry Yates, a beekeeping friend of mine from Birmingham, and from fruit that I have grown myself. It'll sound sappy, but shy of donating an organ, it's as close to a gift from the heart as I can create.

"They are gifts intended to extend the web of sharing: The bees share with Larry, Larry shares his honey with me, I share my meads with those dear to me and, hopefully, they share the mead with their loved ones, and the goodwill grows in an expanding network of connections."

Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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