JELLIED GREEN TOMATOES: A Novel Idea From The Mountaintop Is Changing Lives
Think tomatoes were only meant to be eaten red, ripe and straight from the garden?Think again — the folks at Upper Sand Mountain Parish believe there’s a better way.”Better” as in as in Green Tomato Marmalade. Or Green Tomato Pickles. Or even Green Tomato-Blueberry Jam.High on Sand Mountain, if there’s a better way, you can bet folks will give it a try.That’s why parish mission teams have built 44 “rent-to-own” homes for low-income families. That’s why the parish operates a cannery, a food pantry and two thrift stores to provide food, clothing and jobs for those in need. And that’s why the parish’s co-op of 10 small-membership churches has turned a gleaning project into a niche market built on — you guessed it — green tomatoes.”If you can show us a better way, we’ll try it. If not, we’re going to keep on doing it the same old way we’ve always done it,” said the Rev. Dorsey Walker, the just-retired director of the United Methodist parish that has spent the last 20 or so years touching lives and turning green tomatoes into jams, marmalades, relishes, chutneys and pickles.In all, you’ll find 13 different green tomato products packaged and sold under the “Sand Mountain’s Finest” label at the parish’s very own Better Way Cannery and Thrift Shoppe just off Highway 75 in Sylvania. By late July, the cannery was bustling with kids as a mission team of about 80 junior high kids, college students and adults from Birmingham’s Canterbury United Methodist Church came to lend a hand for a few days, working alongside members from the parish churches. “We literally have kids all over the mountain,” the Rev. Ted Crum, the parish’s new director, said as he watched over a young flock of volunteers. “We’ve got one group scrubbing jars that we can reuse at the cannery. Sometimes, it’s just mundane stuff like that — just hard nasty work, but they’re able to do it and it really does make a difference.”Some picked and washed blueberries. Others chopped cabbage and green tomatoes. Still others stirred pots and packed sauerkraut into quart-sized jars. Some even held Bible studies for children of the area. “When I made the group assignments, I told them, ‘I’m sure you’ll find the presence of the Lord in this place,'” said Crum. “Later, when we were picking blueberries, I heard one of the kids say, ‘Do you feel the spirit?’ I was on the other side of the bush and I was having a hard time not chuckling out loud.”
“We just love coming here,” said Susan Dowdey, youth director at Canterbury. “It’s a perfect trip for junior high kids because they like to do different things. This way, everybody gets to do everything.”There’s always been plenty to do at the parish, ever since it began a gleaning program more than two decades ago to help feed the hungry. “Gleaning is a biblical principal that farmers would allow the poor in the community to go through and pick after they’d harvested,” Crum explained. The parish began offering canning classes as a way to reach the area’s low-income families. Pretty soon, Walker and parish workers found themselves running a cannery, processing and packing sauerkraut and vegetable soup which they gave to soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Anniston, Talladega and Birmingham.At its peak, Walker said, the parish was canning 8,000 to 10,000 quarts a year. “We’d stay up until 1 o’clock in the morning making sauerkraut and soup out of whatever vegetables we had on hand. Back then, it was nothing for a farmer to call and say, ‘I’ve got 30 acres of cabbage that has brown leaf, and we can’t use it. Do you want it?’ So we started using junior high kids on our mission teams to cut up cabbage. Kids just love to cut up cabbage.”When Walker received an Extension Service cookbook featuring green tomato recipes, he had an idea. “We were really into this thing of trying to find a marketing niche that was a little unique,” he said. “We had tried a few other things, but we just couldn’t get going. But when we got that cookbook, and it had those recipes for green tomatoes … “Walker didn’t finish that sentence, but he soon discovered that by grinding up green tomatoes and adding just about any flavor of gelatin, one could create a jam that would get people talking.
“The first we made was with raspberry,” said Walker. “I really hate to tell people that it’s green tomatoes and Jell-O — that just doesn’t sound right.”Realizing that one of the parish’s church families — brothers Wesley, Stafford and Kenneth Hardman — always gave the parish their farm’s surplus blueberries, Walker had another idea. “I thought, ‘What if we just try grinding half green tomatoes and half blueberries and see how it comes out?’ So, we did that, and it came out pretty good.””We just kind of stumbled on to it,” he continued. “We just started experimenting, looking for recipes, and replacing the blueberries with other berries or fruits.”They began combining their green tomatoes with blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, figs, muscadines, kiwis, apples and peaches from marmalade and jams. They made pickles and relish and chutney.A pack of three 8-ounce jars sells for $18. A gift pack of a dozen 4-ounce jars goes for $36, or shoppers can get a dozen 8-ounce jars for $72. You can only find the products at the parish thrift store, its website, Cokesbury bookstores, state museum shops, the Goat Hill Museum at the Alabama State Capitol, and, not surprisingly, at Irondale’s WhistleStop Café, made famous by the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” based upon the novel by Fannie Flagg.”We see this as an outreach,” said Crum. “We’ve created a really good product, but it causes people to wonder, ‘Why would you do such a thing?’ and that draws people here to see what’s going on. … Those of us in the church talk about how folks are given different gifts by God, and part of that is that there are different things that excite us, that motivate us. If green tomatoes works for some folks — and it’s clear to us that it has — that’s just one more way of bringing us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and the difference that He can make in people’s lives.”To learn more about the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, its ministries and its green tomato products, call (256) 638-2126 or visit the web site at www.uppersandmountainparish.org. uppersandmountainparish.org.