“There is nothing so satisfying as hearing the pop of a sealed jar and catching the aroma and flavor of summer in the heart of winter,” says Alessandra Gordon.
Meet Alessandra Gordon, a Seattle-based maker and seller of jams. She learned the art of preserving from her mother, who grew up in Japan and started Ayako & Family.
What do you do? I am the owner and jam maker for Ayako & Family, a decade young family business founded by my mother, Ayako Gordon, here in Seattle.
Ayako & Family emerged from a friendship between my mother and a Yakima-based Japanese farmer, Katsumi Taki, from whom we still source fruit almost exclusively. The company, at its infancy, was fueled by a continuation of food traditions and a growing nostalgia for regional produce. With those same values behind our mission today, we make over a dozen plum jams along with a Japanese version of the classic white pullman loaf called “shokupan,” something that I grew up eating with my grandmother in Japan.
The jam-making process is still an intimate one; from the washing and pitting of the fruit to the labeling of the jars, each one I can by hand. Along with production, I also operate our year-round stands at both the University District and Ballard farmers markets on weekends, and during the week, I take on any operations, including digital marketing, photography, product development and e-commerce management.
How did you get started? I had spent most of my professional career in the Seattle restaurant industry. From a very young age, both my mother and father instilled in me a great respect for the process of preparing our food, from where and what time of year our food was sourced and finally, sharing that experience together.
My father, who had been a line cook at the Quilted Giraffe in 1980s Manhattan, taught me (when a whisk was still too cumbersome to hold) how to create the perfect soft scramble. Add a bit of whole milk, use a fork for smaller hands. The rose he could make from the peel of a tomato, though less useful, taught me to never take our food too seriously.
My mother, who grew up in Japan and moved to Seattle in her 30s, brought to our home meals a sense of pride, simplicity, tradition and exploration. Every dinner was an expression of nostalgia or comfort, whether it be a heaping stock pot of Japanese curry or “spaghetti with meat sauce.”
When my mother started Ayako & Family, I don’t think anyone quite anticipated how powerful this little jar of jam could be and how far she could take it. So, as Ayako & Family began to grow over the span of several years, it very naturally pulled me in because I knew what food meant to her, what it meant to me, and the integrity behind it. The jam drew our communities together — waiters, chefs, florists, artists. It was something we shared. Due to illness, she was eventually unable to continue, so I formally took over the company, inheriting her recipes, two years ago and have been operating it fully since.
What’s a typical day like? Every day is a bit different in this little jam universe. I am typically in the kitchen Monday through Thursday and make on average 250 jars per day during peak harvest, which for plums spans from early July through September.
On the weekends, I pick up between between 200-400 pounds of fruit for the week from my farmer at 5 a.m. before the market opens and deliver them to my production kitchen, where my fruit processor will begin washing and pitting plums through the week.
The weekday afternoons are typically spent shipping orders, making wholesale deliveries and marketing. Fridays are spent preparing for the farmers markets (packing, labeling, coordinating the shokupan bake with my baker), which are back to back Saturday and Sunday.
Weekends are devoted to the two farmers markets, which are day-long. It’s not until January that I’m able to truly relish in a deep, restorative breath!
What’s the best part of the job? Coming from a background in hospitality, one of the most rewarding parts of my work is interacting with my customers at the farmers markets and witnessing firsthand that grin of surprise and delight as they dip into a jam or take a bite of shokupan toast. Sharing food is such a beautiful act — for whoever cooks and serves is, too, receiving so much by way of perhaps a reaction to the food, a memory that it evokes, a common history that becomes illuminated. It is this simple pleasure that fuels me most.
What surprises people about what you do? The art of preserving is a fairly common practice and one with a long history. But it can often feel intimidating with new food technology, automated cooking tools and the fear of not eating something “fresh.”
When I teach people my method of canning, which was handed down to me by my mother, they are always surprised at how home-friendly and fluid it can be. My setup is minimal; in fact, I still use a tiered stovetop steamer pot that I picked up at an Asian grocer here in Seattle to sterilize my jars.
Preserving is such a meaningful and useful way of eating seasonally and regionally while also staying connected with food harvested in seasons past. There is nothing so satisfying as hearing the pop of a sealed jar and catching the aroma and flavor of summer in the heart of winter.