Early this summer, we began selling Stagg Jam & Marmalade — a brand new product made in Brooklyn but “born in Louisiana,” as its label proudly states. Candice Ross left a career in architecture to start the company, which she named after her grandfather, a farmer, father, mechanic and maker who “lives a life filled with love and simplicity,” says the Stagg web site. We called up Candice recently to ask her about her jams, the food scene and her decision to switch paths, in search of a life similarly filled with what matters most.
*In response to the devastating floods in Louisiana, Stagg Jams has announced that now through Sept. 1, 100% of the proceeds from sales of marmalades (Lemon, Orange & Grapefruit) on the Stagg site will be donated to the United Way of Acadiana, to help with rebuilding efforts.
Let’s talk about that Banana Jam. We’re in love.
It’s magic. (Laughs.) I make it, so, obviously, I know how it works. But I’m still always like: Wow! I am convinced that it’s the vanilla bean. There’s organic vanilla bean, and I think it makes everything just pop.
When I first moved to the city 11 years ago, like every 23 year old, I had no money. Like, at all. And I was working at this architecture firm and would have to go on site a lot, and I ended up getting into this habit of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, legitimately, every single day. They’re cheap, you throw them in your bag, they don’t go bad. But I had this problem with the bananas, because they would go brown. I’d buy a bunch of bananas, because they were cheap, and they’d go brown.
And it was around the time I’d started making jam anyway, and so I thought: I’ll just make them into a jam.
Very functional Banana aside, how do you choose your flavors?
They just kind of come to me. Basically, they’re something I would want to eat. For example, I think the Seasoned Sorrel is really kind of a good one. When I moved to Crown Heights, I kept seeing sorrel drink everywhere, and it piqued my interest. So it’s kind of riffing on this amazing cultural product that I came across.
Lemon Poppy Seed is another fun one. I actually made that for a friend of mine, whose birthday was coming up. And, I do that a lot — make something inspired by a person, or the things that they like. And he really likes lemon poppy seed muffins. You end up with this super simple but super delicious marmalade.
How are you using the jams at home?
I definitely love using them in cocktails. The Lemon Poppyseed is in a cocktail now, at a place in my neighborhood. That’s the other thing — with my flavors, I try and make them kind of bold, so that they can be used in different ways. So they work well in cocktails, because the flavors are pretty strong.
Obviously, they also go really well with cheese — especially the Smoky Apple. And also the Spicy Orange, because it’s not too spicy, and it doesn’t overwhelm. A lot of these flavors also go really well with meat. The Sorrel is especially good with duck or lamb.
And that’s kind of what I want — I want to open a door a little, with the jams. Because, it’s already a preserved food. It’s not an end product — it’s kind of the start of something else. I have a few ingredients on the web site, where you’re using the jam as a key ingredient.
For example, I do this thing with a banana cream pie, but instead of bananas and sugar you replace them with a jar of Banana Jam. And it really is the shining star ingredient, but it is also one ingredient in a larger thing. So it’s not just like, for toast! Or yogurt.
… Ultimately, I’d love to create a little space, where all the production is done, and baking is also thrown in with the jam creation. Like, pop tarts, with jam in the middle … or corn muffins with Lemon Poppyseed Jam. Or salad dressings using the jams.
My ultimate goal: Have this space with the jams and rotating baked goods. But it’s also just an experimental place, where people can come, drink coffee (laughs) and help me make jam!
Community is such a huge thing for me. I think that comes from, I’m from such a small, tightknit community in Louisiana. I think I’m kind of trying to bring that here, or create that here. People really want to be a part of that creating. … and you can’t create something alone. So, that’s kind of the goal: a little community of jam tasters and makers. The sharing of products is just so connecting.
And that’s what I love the most about it, these day-to-day interactions. I mean, you have the product, and it’s a good product, and then you share it with someone and it becomes this community effort, from the farmer, to the producer, to the person who buys it. It’s kinda great.
You’ve talked about how this company pays tribute to your grandfather, in that it’s simple and straightforward and made by hand. Were you feeling due for a shift to something simpler?
I’m trained in architecture. I worked in the architecture world for 11 years. I got into it because I love creating things and making things. But I found that was not really how it was working. … It’s such a complicated business.
So, this is my business, and I can dictate just how uncomplicated it is. This is my answer to needing to create something. Something that is simple.
I just want to use my hands again and actually talk to people again. Just simplifying things a little. Life just got a little too complicated in an uncomplicated way.
We’re at a funny moment, where what’s twee has become tangled in what’s earnest and simple and classic. Or maybe the funny thing is how we’ve made food a part of our identities. Being a jam maker in Brooklyn, do you feel pressure from this “foodie moment.”
Yeah, I’m kind of fighting the whole bacon jam situation, and that kind of stuff. It’s just a simple product. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m on a farm making this …There’s no catch to it.
I do feel like it’s all gotten a little out of hand. … I get this question now and then. People will come up to me and say, “What’s the weirdest thing that you have?”
And the answer is: I don’t have anything weird! I guess banana isn’t typical, but it’s not weird! It’s just kind of sad, where you’re like: Man, it’s just food. If you like it, that’s fine. And really, you shouldn’t eat weird food. That sounds questionable.
Seriously, there’s enough in life that’s shocking — I don’t need that from my food products.
Lastly, do you have any advice for people starting a food business?
Don’t be scared of screwing up. Because you will. The first thing you’re going to do is take the wrong step. But don’t be scared. Believe in it, and that’s all that really matters. If you take a wrong step here or there, as long as you believe in it, that’s the only one right step that you have to take.•
*This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.