V SMILEY’S JAMS are like no one else’s. From the moment the little bee-and-flower-themed jars appeared in Seattle, a single spoonful would change yogurt or toast from a snack to a transporting delight.
Flavors have shifted over the past few years for the honey-sweetened, pectin-free condiment that V calls “fruit food.” There’s less nectarine and apricot, for instance, more black currant and elderberries. It’s a change that reflects her own internal and literal journey.
Like many creative people who got their entrepreneurial start on the West Coast, V’s roots were in the Eastern United States. Her parents had settled on a 150-acre Vermont farm during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, an idyllic setting that concealed a hard family life.
By age 4, V was weeding spinach in the commercial vegetable garden. At 9 she was slinging baled hay in the hot barn loft. If she happened to be at rest, just hearing her father’s footsteps would jolt her into action.
“It was important to always be doing something or furthering yourself in some way,” she recalled.
Her father was also a political gadfly, and one who was outspokenly homophobic. V delayed telling him she was queer, even after coming out to friends and siblings.
When she finally did, “His reaction was, basically, ‘you’re dead.’ ”
She fled to Los Angeles, where her sister lived, a life-altering city that was doubly beneficial for her: “full of queer people, and a place for artists.” Health issues led her to stop eating sugar around that time, a move that would later help define her business.
Moving on to Washington, she worked at top places like The Corson Building, Sitka & Spruce and finally The Whale Wins, a “healing and wonderful” place, cooking there with former head chef Marie Rutherford. She met her partner Amy, who was farming on Whidbey Island, “a magical moment.”
Customers loved it when she started her own honey-sweetened jam business in 2013, fascinated by the dual nature of the bees that both pollinate the fruit and contribute to the hives.
“It’s kind of remarkable to me that I named that business V Smiley Preserves. Working in restaurant kitchens is all about keeping your head down,” she says. “I must have done it because I wanted to be identifiable. I knew that, even though it sounds crazy as a 20-something, I wanted to build a name brand.”
And at some level, she knew she wanted to go home to Vermont, with a business that could eventually sustain her there.
Working with honey is highly unusual for a business like V’s. It’s far more expensive than sugar, harder and less predictable to source and to cook with, with distinct flavors that vary by season and geography and even by beekeeper.
The jeweled jams and marmalades she produces are consistently arresting, though: delightfully nuanced, with unusual additions like yarrow or white pepper.
In the beginning, she riffed on established recipes from favorites like “The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook,” like making blueberry with hyssop because the herb was in the same family as more traditional mint. “Cherry fennel sherry” was “a Spanish flavor profile I learned about somewhere along the line, probably from (Sitka & Spruce’s) Matt Dillon.
“Now, I realize those things tasted good in part because of the aromatics, and now I know what we’re trying to do in these flavors is elongate them, and get these peaks and valleys going. Honey is this very flat, almost sour flavor, and we need to get people’s taste buds dancing all around so you’re almost distracted …
“The more wild stuff started to happen once I was here and was able to grow the herbs.”
“Here” means Vermont, where the business has been based since 2015. After V’s father died, she returned to the house where she was literally born and the farmland she loved by the New Haven River. She’s building a new relationship with her mother, better memories, and an ability to live there comfortably, with Amy, as she truly is.
At first she intended just to visit. But “I loved being back here,” she says. She had been so attached to that land her entire life. And she wanted to “re-landscape” its painful associations with better ones.
Her evocative flavors shifted somewhat, from the stone fruits that are abundant in the Northwest more toward the Eastern region currants and herbs, gooseberries and black raspberries, citrus, and rosehips and hibiscus, and even tomatoes. The couple lives near her mom now, and Amy grows some of their ingredients on the farm.
It has taken a lot, and the warm reception and loyal customers she found in Seattle have helped sustain her.
“This business makes no sense on paper … I would never have started this business if it was here in Vermont. There was no market here for this product.”
Bolstered by glimmers of progress, though, she kept going.
“My superpower is just sort of not giving up.”
Six years in, her product is carried in specialty shops nationwide (including Seattle’s SugarPill and Sea Wolf Bakers), and she has a robust mail-order business and a growing local fan base.
Now she’s running a fundraising campaign for her ultimate goal, a restaurant with a menu built around preserves. If all goes well, she’ll open later this year on Vergennes’ Main Street in Vermont.
“We don’t have a great tradition around preserves in our country; they’re limited to the breakfast table.” She pictures demonstrating “all the places this item can exist on the table and in your kitchen,” showing “all preserves can do.” The national jam business will continue, too.
“Every jar is the message that can end up in people’s fridge: I want everyone to come to Vermont and visit!”
With each invitation by jarred invitation, it’s like an affirmation she has built a place she belongs.