It’s just sugar, water and fruit with some lemon juice.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Yet, such simplicity is deceiving. 

At the end of the day, the only one it’s simple for is my paternal grandmother, who has been making jars and jars of pear preserves since the 1940s. For years, various members of my family have attempted — and failed — to replicate what, on the surface, would seem to be the most basic of recipes. We’d look up methods in cookbooks, pick her brain and give it a go only to wind up with the same result.

It’s good, but it’s not quite there and I don’t know why.

Growing up in Augusta, my grandmother loved to be the host. From Masters Week (because it’s a legitimate holiday for us natives) to regular Sundays after church, we’d often gather at her house for supper, enjoying our fill of casseroles, stewed vegetables and fried foods that she perfected in a lifetime of cooking and serving. From roasts smothered in rich, brown gravies to savory fried chicken, these meals were formative experiences in my life. 

We’d shuffle around her small kitchen table, spooning collard greens simmered with ham and creamy butter beans onto our plates before making our way into the dining room for a leisurely lunch that was at the same time both relaxed and ritualistic. My aunt would plead with my younger cousin to eat “just two bites” of green beans, while my dad would share a story from his mischievous childhood while we all laughed.

The end of each meal featured dessert, but — as I recall — it rarely was a pie or cake that occupied our plate. Instead, it was just an extension of the existing meal, as my grandmother would retrieve a jar of homemade pear preserves, place it on the table next to what was left of the biscuits, and we’d all cover them with thin slivers of candied fruit and golden, honey-like liquid.

To this day, the mere mention of this heavenly concoction can make time stand still at our house.

Consider a recent visit I took to see some of my wife’s family near Savannah where I noticed that my father-in-law’s front yard was filled with pear trees so heavy with fruit the branches sloped downward and draped the yard. My eyes grew big, understanding the pure potential of what I was seeing. Yet, I neglected to ask him for just a smattering of this largesse, kicking myself for not being more forward as our family made our way back home along Highway 15.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t be alone in my disappointment. When I shared this tidbit with my father during a family gathering just a few days later, he winced and let out a primal “OH GAH …” that startled the rest of the folks in the room. I swear to you he had to steady himself against a chair, pausing for a moment as though he had been whacked in the shins with a crowbar. Such is the allure of these preserves, that an unharvested bushel of fruit can push members of my family to the lowest of lows as we ponder what might have been.

Mind you, these days there isn’t anyone to actually prepare these preserves. My grandmother doesn’t cook much, if at all, anymore. She’s inching toward 100 years old, dealing with “good days” and “bad days” as one often does at her age. The cabinets that once were full of the sweet, syrupy goodness are now depleted.

My mother officially requested to learn what was once a secret recipe, and in recent years my grandmother has relented on her culinary privacy to walk her and a close friend through the process. According to my father, she’s done a serviceable job, but it’s still nothing like what my grandmother would prepare for so many years.

Even with that knowledge passed on, albeit partially, it’s still challenging to find the time to pursue the practice necessary to truly master this skill. You see, it’s a process. There’s the cooking of the fruit, the making of the sugary syrup, the preparation of the jars and so forth. It’s not like learning your favorite family recipe for a birthday cake. This is an all-day investment that requires patience, vigilance and, of course, ample storage for all of these dang jars.

Plus, no one is entirely sure what pears are best to use because none of us seem to know where she got her pears. For starters, she didn’t have a pear tree on her property, though I do recall ones full of pecans and figs at various points of my youth. Because of this, she had to source them from somewhere.

My father seemed to remember that they came from a distant cousin who worked at the family hardware store. My uncle, though, was convinced they came from someone in South Carolina, while other family members felt she just searched through the local markets until she tracked down the best looking ones.

Certain pears obviously worked better than others, but mainly she just focused on what was available.


After a brief boom, both fruits retracted from the limelight, winding up in a few backyards scattered across the region. Were my grandmother’s initial batches of pear preserves — and the ones made by her elders during her childhood on a rural farm in North Carolina — prepared with these now seemingly exotic fruits? 

Well, according to my uncle (and countless agricultural experts), maybe … but probably not.


If my grandmother was less than picky about her pears, it might have been because pears have been particularly picky about growing and thriving in Southern climates. Traditional European-style pears typically only do well in cooler environments, such as New England, the Great Lakes and the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon. 

At the head of the pack, is the Bartlett pear, which is found everywhere from your grocery store’s produce section to the packaged, plastic cups filled with diced fruit that fill children’s lunch trays during the school year. It was discovered growing wild in England by John Stair, who sold some cuttings of the tree to someone with the last name Williams and a first name lost forever, and then imported to the U.S. in the 1790s where Enoch Bartlett planted them and opted to just rename them after himself.

The problem with Bartlett pears — and, well, most pears in general — is they are notoriously finicky, more susceptible to pests and disease while on the tree, yet ripening way too quickly upon picking. They’ve long struggled to take hold in the South, with two exceptions briefly emerging in the 1800s. 

The LeConte pear, which traces its roots back to Georgia’s own Liberty County, yielded a sweet, tasty option that flourished in the 1800s. It was a hybrid of Pyrus seratina, or “sand pear,” and a more classical, sweet French dessert pear. In theory, this meant the Southern pear industry would finally be able to compete with its Northern brethren thanks to this agrarian innovation. The variety spread across south Georgia through the end of the 19th century, commanding up to an astounding $7 a bushel.

Unfortunately, despite its ability to last longer in transit, it still wasn’t strong enough to withstand the blight that plagued many fruit trees in the humid heat of the South. At the same time, however, the Kieffer pear seemed to be a more viable option as it was a hybrid between a European and Asian species, offering better resistance to pests and a durable tree suited to both sandy and clay soils.

It also was only good for canning. 

“They were ‘preserved’ with sugar because the ripe fruit had a taste compared to a raw potato,” noted Ed O’Rouke, co-author of Gardening in the Humid South, in a 2009 issue of Country Roads.

After a brief boom, both fruits retracted from the limelight, winding up in a few backyards scattered across the region. Were my grandmother’s initial batches of pear preserves — and the ones made by her elders during her childhood on a rural farm in North Carolina — prepared with these now seemingly exotic fruits? 

Well, according to my uncle (and countless agricultural experts), maybe … but probably not.


It’s simple, right? But if it was simple, wouldn’t one of us have been able to recreate that recipe by now? Wouldn’t one of us have been able to put a jar in front of my dad or my uncle, watch them take a bite and say “yep, this is it.”


That’s because the Southern Bartlett ultimately would arise to give the region’s farmers — and canners — a viable option that not only could hold up to the well-known Bartlett from the North in terms of flavor, but also navigate the challenges that plagued earlier varieties in the South. The Southern Bartlett, like its Yankee predecessor, is flavorful, but also quite watery and not the best suited for canning. As such, creating its syrup calls for lots — and I mean lots — of sugar (one online recipe I came across called for one cup of sugar per three pears).

Fortunately, preserves require sugar … and that is a literal statement. Contrary to whatever Smucker’s might print on its label, there is no such thing as a “sugar-free” variety of preserves. 

“People will ask me ‘how can I make this kind of preserves without sugar?,’” said Dr. Elizabeth Andress, the former director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. “And I always say ‘are you talking about traditional southern fruit preserves with pieces of fruit in a thick sugar syrup or are you talking about something like a jam?’ Invariably, today, people are talking about what is a jam because the answer is you can’t make southern fruit preserves without sugar.” 

Preserves, as Andress pointed out, theoretically are easy to comprehend. They are typically just a handful of common ingredients cooked together, shoveled into jars and then sealed up to last for a few months at a time.

So, like I said, there’s not much to it.

It’s just sugar, water and fruit with some lemon juice.

It’s simple, right? But if it was simple, wouldn’t one of us have been able to recreate that recipe by now? Wouldn’t one of us have been able to put a jar in front of my dad or my uncle, watch them take a bite and say “yep, this is it.”

The simplicity is deceiving because, really, it’s not simple. The recipe is more than the ingredients that went into that jar, but rather the memories, feelings and nostalgia that comes with it. The reason we keep trying over and over again to replicate it isn’t because the flavor is that off, but rather because we want to get just a bit closer to the familiar, loving environment we remember.

The flavors harken back to those times gathered around her table, laughing to stories that grow more exaggerated with each telling. My father sharing a story of him startling my uncle when he tried to sneak in past curfew one night. Or one of my cousins so eager to pet a kitten on the back porch she ran face-first right into a surprisingly clean sliding glass door.

Yes, my grandmother’s pear preserves are delicious, but that’s not what makes them practically irreplaceable in our book. So, we’ll keep on trying to come up with that recipe, eager to take a bite and remember.

Perhaps one day, many years down the road, it will be my daughter frustrated in the kitchen, wondering why her take on my pulled pork or something else just isn’t quite turning out right.

It’s good, but it’s not quite there and I don’t know why.

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