“I’m just a crazy girl doing what I love”

Photography by Mary Dolan and Amy Spencer

The only person to win one of our Local Hero awards all four years that we’ve held them is Tabitha Stroup of Friend in Cheeses Jam Co., and while slightly astounded, the wildly talented jam maker is never at a loss for words: “It feels badass. It tickles and amazes me. It will never get old to have this kind of recognition. It deeply means so much to me.”

Always moving at breakneck speed, Stroup started Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. five years ago with just three local shops carrying her flashy flavor combinations, and has expanded now to some 500 retail outlets on both coasts. Jam making and shipping go on practically every day with five assistants, though Stroup says she doesn’t use any written recipes and still stirs every batch herself.

Stroup’s culinary career started in the 1990s at the pastry bench in the legendary India Joze restaurant. “I bugged Jozseph to teach me things, and he introduced me to the wide world of flavor,” she recalls. “He’s always been really good at expressing flavors and putting them on a plate.”

Following a two-year “trial by fire” as pastry chef at the Dream Inn and a stint at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, she was hired as pastry chef and garden helper at Theo’s in Soquel— one of the area’s first farm-to-table restaurants. “That was my first exposure to real food, and that was when things like seasonality really started to click for me,” she says.

“It was an innocent era before chef stardom. David Kinch would show up on a Saturday night with all these stinky cheeses wrapped in newspaper,” she remembers. “We were just a collection of people on the fringes, and that’s where we felt we belonged. We were so self-motivated, we never wanted to leave, so we’d sit in the driveway at night sipping whiskey from paper cups.”

Eventually Stroup got burned out on the grind of daily restaurant work and began working as a promoter of Santa Cruz Mountain wineries. It’s the oldest wine growing region in California and Stroup believes it has remained largely untainted by exposure to public whims. “The artists that work with wine in this region do it for themselves and that keeps them honest and pure,” she says. “There are some seriously sexy wines coming out of here.”

Teaching about wine, organizing events and hosting pairings for local wineries proved to be her forte. And her food went well beyond brie and crackers. “One time I put red Starburst candies on fresh rosemary skewers and roasted them over a hibachi, then paired them with a Syrah,” she says. “People really started to get that wine!”

Her business was called “Praise cheeses, pass the wine,” and when people kept telling her she should sell her homemade jams and condiments, she started Tabitha’s Appropriate Jams because, she explains, “everything else I did was so inappropriate.”

Pinot Cherries was her first commercial success, and the business morphed into what is now Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. Other popular flavors—using produce sourced from small, local farms—include Electric Beetroot Confiture, made with pink peppercorns, fresh thyme and Meyer lemon; Tart ’N Spicy Tomato Jelly; and Pisco Pear Butter. Currently she’s experimenting with a prickly pear/padrón pepper blend and something using salt-cured Rangpur limes.

“The past five years have been the most intense, joyful, painful journey I’ve ever been on,” she adds. “I’m just a crazy girl doing what I love.”

Friend in Cheeses Jam Co.

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