Jam House offers sweet Mexican treat

October 3, 2012 (CHICAGO)

Even though the weather is starting to get a little bit chilly, it's not slowing down one family on 18th Street. They continue to churn out dozens of homemade jams and shaved ice, carrying on a tradition that began in Mexico, and now continues in Chicago.

Rene Lemus spends most of his days jamming, but it has nothing to do with music. He's recreating a favorite snack from his family's hometown in Mexico, called raspado. It's essentially shaved ice with flavored jams, and up until now, he's been the only one in Pilsen taking the time to make the traditional flavors at his new business, The Jam House.

"There's a lot of people from Jalisco living here, but it's not only very typical of Jalisco - I've seen it in other states - but it's mostly in Jalisco," said Lemus.

Lemus' counter is lined with assorted flavors - more than two dozen of them. There are about a half-dozen milk-based ones, like coconut milk, plus another 19 featuring mostly tropical jams such as mango, kiwi, mamey and pineapple.

A typical flavor, such as guava, starts with the raw fruit and some water in a blender. The two are pureed until fairly smooth, then that puree is poured into a large pot. More fresh guava is added, along with a substantial amount of granulated sugar. That mixture has to cook down for close to an hour. The resulting jam is thick and concentrated with noticeable pieces of fruit embedded within.

Once an order comes in - and typically you choose two flavors - Lemus rubs his old-fashioned hand scraper over a giant block of ice, transferring the chunky snow to a cup. The first jam flavor is added to the top. Then he grates some more of the ice, adding it to the cup until it reaches a peak above the rim, finally adding that second flavor to the top.

"You're supposed to mix it all up with the ice, especially if you've got two flavors. Mix it up, and then you get that mix of flavors," he said.

The obvious question is, sure, a great snack for hot summer months in Chicago, but what's the plan come winter?

"Planning to get pancakes and waffles and just adding that to the menu and putting the jams on that," said Lemus.

The Jam House
1854 W. 18th St.

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