The warm, sweet aromas of baking and mulled spices fill the mission-style barn. Light filters in through a large window that illuminates an enormous pantry of wainscoted shelves lined with ruby, royal blue, and burgundy jars of jams, chutneys, relishes, marmalades, sauces, and preserves. Stonewall Kitchen (www.stonewallkitchen.com) is the award-winning, nationally recognized, gourmet specialty food company based in the town of York in coastal Maine. Countertops surrounding the shop’s main room are cluttered with open jars of jam and stacks of crackers inviting you to explore the art of preserve making and experience the shared food passions of the owners Jim Stott and Jonathan King.
What started as a hobby of making a dozen jars of jam in their kitchen in 1991 has turned into a highly successful dream-driven company. The impetus is not a mission statement or adherence to the bottom line, it’s an enthusiasm for simple, good food that’s full of flavor and beautifully packaged.
“Does it taste good, does it bring a smile to their mouth when they have it on their toast?” Jim explains their credo in his earnest, thick Maine accent, “We’re very passionate that way. It’s the one thing that’s held us together 24 hours a day, 15 years doing this, and 18 years being together, and we wouldn’t be if we weren’t totally on the same page and coming at it from yin and yang areas. Jonathan is driving the bus and he does a damn good job of it, but someone has to get out and fix it every now and then, and that’s me.”
In fact, they are both still amazed at their success. They run their gourmet food company the way they cook for each other
every night at home. Jim is a short order cook. He’ll see what’s in the fridge and then run out to the market to grab what’s
fresh. Jonathan labors over it. He writes out a menu, finds recipes from magazines, and dirties every pot and pan they own. It’s not so much about helping as it is sitting at the kitchen island watching the other cook and tasting what he comes up with. What they consistently come up with for the business venture is a fresh take on New England favorites.
The fragrance from Stonewall Kitchen’s famous Roasted Garlic Onion Jam hits you between the eyes as you open the lid. Its sweet taste with a hint of balsamic vinegar leaves you with a pleasantly surprised look on your face, as it did theirs. It was a complete mistake. Early on in their beach house kitchen, Jim was stirring a pot of roasted garlic barbeque sauce while talking on the phone with his mother. He didn’t pay attention and it reduced too much. With an hour and a half before the farmers market and nothing else to sell, they decided that if they threw sugar and pectin in, it would sort of look like jam and they could at least try and sell it. At New York City’s Fancy Food Show that July, that accident won best jam.
A few years back, both men gave up actually making the jams and started focusing on Stonewall the brand, each in
their own way: Jonathan as Creative Director/President and Jim as the self-taught Company Photographer/Vice
President. They are nothing if not prolific with wholesale, website, and catalog sales, plus seven east coast stores, all
filled to the brim with choices of their tasty wares, as well as English Burleigh Ware ironstone. A casual perusal through
the catalog is enough to make your waistline expand two sizes: Coffee Caramel Sauce, White Nectarine Jam, Wild Maine
Blueberry Jam, Red Hot Pepper Jam, Fresh Lemon Curd, Wasabi Horseradish Cream Sauce, Pink Grapefruit Marmalade,
and a Country Catsup that is so thick and tomatoey it should replace every bottle of Heinz on the planet. In conjunction with Kathy Gunst, former culinary editor of Food & Wine, they’ve written two cookbooks, Stonewall Kitchen Harvest: Celebrating the Bounty of the Seasons and Stonewall Kitchen Favorites: Delicious Recipes to Share with Family and Friends Every Day. On their own they wrote The Stonewall Kitchen Cookbook: Favorite Pantry Recipes. Just last year, they teamed up with Ina Garten to produce the Barefoot Contessa Pantry line of specialty foods based on her top-selling cookbooks. Their flagship store in York houses their kitchen where all the jams are made, offices, and a café restaurant where you can savor a lobster BLT knowing that the buttery bite of Maine lobster dancing in your mouth was delivered by the local high school football coach who owns a lobster company and hires his football team to pick the meat for Stonewall Café.
Jim and Jon didn’t grow up in a kitchen learning generations of secrets from their New England grandmothers. They were both raised in large Massachusetts families, Jon summering in Cape Neddick, Maine with his Irish mom and five siblings at a campground the family still uses, and Jim taking over the family cooking at a young age after growing up on his mother’s Nova Scotia salt cod and liver and onions.
They met through mutual friends at an open mic night at a bohemian coffee house in Portsmouth, began chatting, and at Jonathan’s request started a yearlong romance.
“I’m ten years younger than Jim. He was actually my third grade teacher. I’m kidding!” Jonathan says with a laugh that shows just how stubborn he can be about getting what he wants. They marked the date on a calendar and a year later, they
moved in together.
After that year together, both had incurred a lot of debt. Jon was working happily in a greenhouse tending his love of horticulture and Jim was waiting tables at night and at printing houses during the day after the 80’s housing market crash
ended his construction firm. One day Jon brought to the greenhouse some jams and vinegars that he had made from his
garden, and one of his co-workers mentioned an opening at the Portsmouth Seacoast Growers Association Farmers Market. There were only 15 vendors, and usually someone had to get sick or die to get a coveted space. They jumped on it.
They had ten minutes to come up with a name and fill out the forms. Jim recalls that they were sitting at the kitchen table in their Cape Cod beach house. “We jotted down a list of everything we thought of. ‘Jim and Jon’s Jams and Jellies’ was
one of the options. We would not be here if we went with that. It was March, and it was snowing, and there was a stone wall
right outside the kitchen window. This old stone wall with a little spattering of snow—I thought it would make a great
graphic.” They wrote it on the form and in 1991 Stonewall Kitchen was born.
As a gay-owned company it’s assumed that their name is a clever spin on the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It wasn’t. Shaking his head, his eyes shining, Jim loves telling the story of a phone call Jonathan made in the fledgling company’s early days. “He called [what he thought was] a bed and breakfast called the Stonewall Inn to ask if they’d be interested in selling our product. There was a leather queen on the other end saying, ‘Do you know where you’re calling???’ That shows how naive he was…he’s still very naive, that’s what I love about him. I think that’s maybe why we seem so astounded by all that has happened, because we’re both pretty much that way.”
The first day at the farmers market, they brought plant seedlings and jams, hand-labeled by Jonathan (who still does it to this day). The seedlings were a bust but the jam flew off the burlap-draped card table. They upped their game and fitted folding tables with custom burlap tablecloths, lined them with old crates and baskets, and topped it off with a big Smith and
Hawken canvas umbrella. The market had never had someone sell a jar of product like this before or seen such a production.Week after week of 200 people lining up waiting for the boys to unpack, even the straightest redneck farmers started putting up umbrellas and displaying their produce like little Dean and Delucas.
When not rushing off to food shows in Paris, or keeping the jam mill running in Maine, the boys fly to their weekend retreat on the Puerto Rican island of Vieqeus. They bought a chunk of property bordering former Navy land and they have been building for the past three years. Jonathan remains sideswiped by the whole idea.
“We had been going to Puerto Rico a lot and went over to Vieques, where some friends had land. We were there for two
days and we bought it. It was the first time I had done anything [like that]. If I had only known! It’s so easy to buy and renovate, but it’s a bureaucratic nightmare if you are building from the ground up. Having a business we usually plan ahead. Did we lose our minds? What did we drink down there?”
Their modern Caribbean getaway is uncomplicated, and the life is simple. Creamy white furniture and Oriental rugs thrown hither and yon balance dark mahogany kitchen cabinets, floors, and ceilings. All of this overlooks stunning 180º views of the turquoise coastline.
Simple yes, but for Jonathan it all comes down to planning, and a bit of smooth talking. “I told Jimmy we spent $900 on these curtains. The truth was they were really $9,000, but I always take a zero off when I tell him. Jim is such a Yankee. I
don’t ever tell him the truth about what I pay. If I told him he would faint.”
They are in the midst of trying to figure out how to get their three golden retrievers Violet, Daisy, and Holley to the island. Their “girls” are exactly like the boys themselves: handsome, comfortable, loving, and a vital part of the Stonewall business mix of passion and home. For these affable, talented men it’s all about pleasure, in taste and in atmosphere. There’s no predicting what Caribbean flavors will be infused into their next jams and sauces, but you can be sure Jim or Jonathan will be hit by the scent of a local food specialty and the guessing of ingredients will begin, followed by a dash back to the house where pots and pans will fly—mixing it up, adding, subtracting, and creating something that will make our taste buds sing with an island accent.