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Preserving Heritage with Pepper Jelly

A group of Thomaston women work hard to keep Thomaston on the map by making pepper jelly. Their work preserves the heritage of rural Alabama as they continue a tradition in the Thomaston area. 

The “Pepper Jelly Women” range in age from late 60s to early 80s. This group includes Marilyn Daniels, Carolyn Finley, Shirley Crocker, Margaret Parker, Peggy Pritchett, and Lille Parsons. Their product, known as Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly, is sold at the Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston.

The women gather in the commercial kitchen at the Center to make the pepper jelly known and loved by both natives and visitors. Donna Stokes, Thomaston city clerk, said, “It’s a unique taste, and it’s yummy. You can eat it and just not get tired of it. I like it best with cream cheese and crackers.”

Barbara Akins, who works in the Center, said, “People drive through Thomaston from everywhere. They will stop by and come in just for the pepper jelly. Especially during football season, a lot of people will come by here and get some pepper jelly on their way to tailgate.”

The top label on the Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly jars reads, “Thomaston, Alabama, is a real small town. If it weren’t for the stop light and a few houses, you might not recognize it from the sprawling green country side that surrounds it. “Mama Nem” taught us to use locally grown produce to make all natural, top quality products unique to the southern cooking we enjoy at home.”

The Pepper Jelly Women, starting with the original group, have been making Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly for about 15 years now.

The title “Mama Nem’s” came from it being a normal phrase that could be heard in conversations around town. Finley said, “We were talking about stories, and I noticed that when people talked about cooking or things like that they would say ‘Mama Nem said this’ or ‘Mama Nem did this’.  People used it to mean “Mama and them used to…”

The Rural Heritage Center is located at the former Thomaston High School’s home-economics building. Students from Auburn University’s Rural Studio helped renovate the older building into the Rural Heritage Center that now features a gift shop, a restaurant, and a commercial kitchen.

“They created the gift shop to focus on thing to do with Alabama. They wanted something special to sell, so they chose a food item. Dr. Robyn Fellows who taught economics at Auburn University came and worked with the ladies in the kitchen to find the right recipe for the pepper jelly,” Akins explained.

Thanks to the renovations and the commercial kitchen, there was a place where the pepper jelly could be made. It started out with the director and several other people making it. Later, the Pepper Jelly Women organized to start making the product.

The pepper jelly is made with Jalapeno peppers, bell peppers, pectin, sugar, and vinegar. It is normally a two-day process. One day, they wash the peppers and cut them. They put them in bags and freeze them. On another day, they mix everything up and put the jelly in jars.

The jelly is sold in the gift shop, by orders and in local stores. The money from sales goes to upkeep for the nonprofit Rural Heritage Center and to buying supplies for the next batch of jelly.

Daniels, the first to join the current group of jelly makers, said she learned the process by watching the group before.  She said, “I just got started that way. It’s hard to give it up, I want to keep it going. I enjoy being with the group that helps make it. It is something we started and we hate to give it up.”

Daniels said she knows the recipe by heart and leads the group when they make the jelly. “She is the Mamma of us all, “said Finley.

Finley, who started helping about four years ago, said, “We were all friends, just helping each other out, so we started making it together.”

When asked why she helps make the jelly, Finley answered, “I like to be a part of things going on in the community. I think pepper jelly is an asset of the community. I like to be a part of things that are happening in Thomaston. I was born here, I live here. I want to be a part of things.”

She laughed as she added, “Mama Nem used to be the same way. They were always involved and were a part of everything in the community.”

The Pepper Jelly Women all said that they enjoy coming together and making the jelly. They do have concerns about the future. “We are all elderly. I’m probably the oldest one up there. I don’t know if there will be a younger group of people that will take it and do what we have done. I do hope that someone will when we cannot,” said Daniels.