Everyone always thinks that the best part of my job is the food, and I don’t deny that I eat pretty well between events, dishes prepared for photo shoots, recipe testing, and all the other delicious things I get to try.
But I maintain that the best part of my job is the friends I get to make, like Sonya Staffan who owns — and is — The Jam and Jelly Lady of Lebanon, Ohio. Craig and I met her when we were down in the Cincinnati area a few weeks ago, having wandered into her shop on a main street in town on a cool, rainy morning.
This was after a generous breakfast at the Breakfast Club Cafe, 102 N. Broadway St. in Lebanon, a family-owed place which had been recommended for its hearty portions and its friendly, homespun appeal. There were some lighter, healthier options on the extensive menu, such as the Yogurt Grande Crunch bowl filled with strawberry yogurt and an abundance of fresh fruit that was perfect for me. And, of course, the classics — such as Craig’s Belgian waffle topped with strawberry sauce and an enormous dollop of whipped cream — couldn’t be missed. But the bulk of the menu consists of items containing creative handmade sausages (i.e.: parmesan-spinach), and gargantuan, family-sized portions meant to satisfy even the hungriest customers.
So, after a good, wholesome meal, it was time to peruse the town. Several small shops along the street offered assorted home decor tchotchkes, hand towels with cute sayings (i.e.: “Step aside, coffee. This is a job for alcohol.”) and other gift items.
Sonya’s shop stood out, though, for offering her homemade, handmade, small batches of jams. She proudly told us that she doesn’t use pectin, only fruit and sugar, in her slow-cooked fruit products that have no additional thickeners besides simple, closely-monitored evaporation which can take nearly two hours.
She apologized that her array of offerings was somewhat diminished; having broken one leg and the other foot this past May, she was a bit behind in production. That she was still cooking at all with summer’s bounty — and able to work at her shop (standing, walking, stocking shelves, etc.) only a few months after falling down some stairs — seemed miraculous, with no apologies necessary at all.
When I sampled the blackberry jam, it was still warm, having just been made that morning. It’s sweet-tartness shone through, with nothing to mask or mute it.
Sonya has been making jam for decades, having learned from her grandmother and her great-grandmother and continuing the tradition. Her face lights up as she talks about it, and how this was a way to be both a stay-at-home mom and an entrepreneur all at once. Her husband ultimately built her a kitchen behind their house, which is dedicated to jam-making, when it was clear that the business was a tremendous success.
One of her three children, an engineering student who has attended Ohio State University, has been working at an internship this summer, so he’s not been available to help his mom. Sonya said he even admitted to missing the sound of the pressure canner she uses to seal jars, as he and his siblings have been integral to the family business. She chuckled as she told us that canning was even educational.
“That’s how our kids learned to count,” she said — by listening to the pings of the jars as they sealed properly.
Sonya proudly promotes neighboring businesses, her town, and the state of Ohio through social media, word of mouth, and through the kitchenware, gifts, and food products she sells at The Jam and Jelly Lady. And many of those people — from beekeepers to artists — are friends whose stories she tells, so that you also feel a connection to them.
Sonya’s warmth and friendliness absolutely brightened the chilly, wet day, and certainly made us want to come back down to her small town to see her again. When we do, we’ll be visiting a new friend who was so lovely we already feel as though she’s a long-time (not old — never old!) friend.
The Jam and Jelly Lady, 20 S. Broadway St., Lebanon, OH, 513-932-6470, jamandjellylady.com.
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