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Santa Clara Valley Lives: Margaret Hill Smith's solar jam – a recipe ahead of its time


Robin Chapman/Special to the Town Crier
Jam cooked in the sun takes three to four days before it’s done. The recipe is from Margaret Hill Smith, whose husband Gilbert planted the Los Altos Civic Center Apricot Orchard.

You may think solar power is a 21st-century concept. But a Los Altos woman, born before the invention of the airplane, can still teach us a thing or two about it.

The late Margaret Hill Smith, whose husband planted the apricot orchard in 1901 that now surrounds Los Altos City Hall, loved apricot jam. But she didn’t like cooking it over a hot stove on warm summer days. Instead, she mixed her jam in a low pan and placed it outside on a table in direct sunlight, covering the pot with a piece of glass. The glass magnified the sun’s rays, which then cooked the jam. She placed four matchsticks at four different spots where the glass met the pot, to allow the air to circulate and cook the jam more evenly. Four days in the sun and the jam was done.

I uncovered the recipe in the archives of the Los Altos History Museum five years ago and tested it. In my garden, the jam cooked in just three and a half days. And – though this was not in the recipe – I brought the jam in at night, to protect it from crepuscular critters.

My neighbor, Frank White, who grew up in Los Altos, remembers seeing Mrs. Smith’s jam cooking in the sunlight of her garden when he was a child. He says she put each leg of the jam table in a glass of water, to keep away the ants.

Try Mrs. Smith’s recipe, featured below. You may preserve the jam in jars and seal them using canning lids – but you will need to boil the lids to help create the seal. Without a sealed lid, sun jam can also be stored in the refrigerator, where it will last for six months. Either way, you have saved the taste of a Santa Clara Valley summer for use in the months ahead. And you have not wasted a single BTU – courtesy of a woman born in the 19th century.

Robin Chapman is a journalist and the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013).

 

Margaret Hill Smith’s Sun-Kissed Apricot Jam

• 4 cups ripe apricots, diced

• 4 cups granulated sugar

• 1/4 cup lemon juice

Mix ingredients in shallow enamel pan and cover with glass. Place matchsticks between glass and pan in four places to allow air to circulate. Stir occasionally. Leave in sun approximately four days, or until jam droplets hang heavily off spoon.

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