by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager
Violet and Earl Slack bought their rural Okee, Wisconsin farm in the 1940s before leaving steady jobs on Madison’s near eastside. Working with metals for an industrial fabricator on East Washington Avenue caused Earl to have lung trouble, so they began farming to support and feed their family. Soon after, the Slack’s began selling and delivering eggs, produce and homemade bakery items to neighbors and vacationers in the Lake Wisconsin area. In 1954, after taking advantage of an unusually good year for blackberries, Violet and her daughters’ blackberry jam became a popular favorite among their customers, earning a reputation that would support their family for generations.
Still an independent family affair
Their daughter-in-law Ethel and her children, Mark and Jacki, cook and can alongside their employees on the three days each week their delicacies are produced. Their conservative, renovated kitchen was originally added on to the circa 1860s farmhouse soon after starting the business to keep up with local and mail-order demand for their jams and jellies.
Selecting the fruit
Mark Slack moved to the farm with his family in the mid-1960s and by 1974 was the same person responsible for selling the family’s products to the newly-formed Willy Street Co-op. Creator of the whimsical graphics used on their labels, Mark and some local brokers also work on procuring the fruits used in their products, purchasing only select fruit at the peak of their season that are quick-frozen before shipping to ensure a consistent and readily available supply throughout the year. The importance of using a good broker in the fields, Mark says, is key. “For strawberries, it’s real particular that it be a firm, light-colored berry instead of a dark, overly-ripe, mushy berry because, once you make it into jam, it’ll only get darker.” The Slacks source over 20 varieties of fruit from farms across the United States to produce their small-batch jams and jellies. That list of locations includes apples from Gays Mills, Wisconsin; cranberries from either Minocqua or Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin; and cherries sometimes from Door County or Michigan.
To honor the traditional recipes, in the kitchen the Slacks still use an all-natural citrus-derived pectin to gel the fruit. Ethel emphasizes that they refrain from using any artificial preservatives or mold inhibitors in their recipes. For those who dare to dive into full-on, sugar-sweetened treats, be certain that Slack’s uses only 100% pure cane granulated sugar and not corn syrup or turbinado (raw sugar).
To streamline the process, the original (and labor-intensive) 12-burner gas stovetop and five-gallon kettles have been replaced by three self-contained 40-gallon cookers. But rest assured, Ethel reminds us that each batch of fruit/sugar/pectin is still hand-mixed and stirred with long wooden paddles before reaching 160º at which point it is transferred only three-to-five feet away to the canning machine.
Still fluid before canning, one-to-two gallons at a time of the cooked fruit are poured into a large cone at the top of the canning machine that meters out the correct amount of fruit into each jar as they are moved along on a short conveyor belt. Within ten minutes after each lid is hand-screwed on, sealed and affixed with a label on the short assembly line, the syrupy liquids begin to firm up inside the jars as they rest on one of the many wire cooling shelves lining the production area.
Now sold in stores throughout the Midwest, the Slacks and a crew of five can typically hand mix and bottle as much as 200 cases in a day. Visitors and vacationers in the area can still visit the Slack’s factory and gift shop (open year round, Monday through Saturday 9:00am–5:00pm and closed Sundays) in the original family farmhouse, just a few steep miles up and off of Highway 113 outside of Lodi. This classic Wisconsin destination appropriately features one entire wall of shelves filled with all of the varieties of their jams, jellies, butters and other fine products.
At the Co-op
Willy Street Co-op is pleased to offer Slack’s strawberry-rhubarb, red raspberry, black raspberry, red cherry, apricot and cranberry-raspberry jams, as well as the apple and pumpkin butters. All of them can be found in aisle four, next to, of course, the peanut butter!
For more information
For more information about Slack’s, call (608) 592-4804 or log onto: http://www.explorewisconsin.com/SlacksInc/.