By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson |
Before we introduce you to Donna Collins, we’d like to ask you to close your eyes and visualize one word: Jelly.
Where in your childhood did that 5-letter encapsulation of love and yum take you? Maybe to grape jelly spread on a piece of toast by your mom, or edge-to-edge on a slice of white bread for an after-school treat. Maybe you remember a breakfast of biscuits, their layers of strawberry jelly and butter between airy flakes almost too delicious to bear. Or maybe you’re all but tasting the most obvious — a PB&J, the classic sandwich of childhood (and, for some of us, way into adulthood).
Enter Donna, who lives, breathes, develops, cooks and savors jelly all day every day. Jam, too. Plus, marmalade, and conserves (each of which we’ll define later).
“I think the biggest thing about jelly is that everyone has good memories that have to do with jelly,” says Donna. She’s the passion and prowess behind The Jelly Queens specialty gourmet food company. Its commercial kitchens are in what she affectionately calls the Jelly House, a charming old cottage on Lovers Lane.
“Someone gave them jelly toast, or made them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she says. “It’s someone being good to you. We all have this childhood loveliness. It connects to a certain time, to family.
Despite such eloquence and such love for all things fruity, organic, sustainable and wonderful, Donna didn’t set out to be a jelly maven. Nor to become a walking primer about the history of preserves (first mentioned, as her website attests, in the first known cookbook in the year 1 A.D.). Nor to be invited to participate in esteemed gastronomical events like the 2017 Slow Foods Nations (one of only 100 companies included).
And as far as winning 19 world and national awards, four of them for one flavor of marmalade? Or hosting the world’s first Biscuits and Jampionship, an ancillary contest at the World Food Championships? Or being the impetus behind the World Food Championships coming to Dallas in mid-October of this year?
Never even entered her mind. She was more intent on honing her talents as a jewelry designer and as an artist, eventually working for the Saudi Arabian royal family.
But she’s always loved cooking; always been a fabulous cook. In 2011, she was on season two of Master Chef. Her signature dish was a Dutch baby pancake with fruit and champagne jelly. When the show aired, she and some fellow contestants had a watching party at a pub on Greenville Avenue in Dallas. A pub, by the way, with 600 kinds of beer.
“Someone asked me, ‘Can you make beer jelly?’ ” Donna recalls. “I had no concept of craft beer. But they said they were going to give me 21 bottles of beer. There was cherry beer, peach beer, raspberry beer. I made 21 kinds of jelly out of beer, and I don’t even drink.”
She gave jars of the fruity beer jelly to her friends and family, who loved it. A couple of months later, she set up a booth at NorthPark Center in Dallas. She made some money and gained more fans. So she invested in another booth, this one at the World Trade Center in Dallas. If that venture was profitable, she decided, she’d consider making jelly more of a livelihood than a hobby. She brought in enough money to cover the cost of a booth for a year.
The Jelly Queens business was officially off and running. First, though, a word about the name of her business. It’s The Jelly QueenS (plural), not Queen (singular) because, as she says, “I didn’t want to do something all by myself.” In other words, we’re all in this — life, business, the jelly kitchen — together.
One of her stalwart colleagues is Cameron Spencer, her sous chef for the last three years. He cooks daily in one of the Jelly House kitchens helping Donna achieve alchemy through the magical combination of fruity flavors, spirits and spices to each traditional recipe.
Except for blood oranges, which come from California, the fruit used is grown locally. Every Tuesday, every season, farmers bring Donna bushels of fresh, fragrant, beautiful fruit. On a recent morning, the bounty is organic peaches, grown on Ulrich Orchards in Hamilton, Texas, by Gary Ulrich and his family. Maybe it will be turned into Peach Pepper Jam, combined with equally fresh and organic peppers.
“Our goal is to be completely sustainable,” she says. “People have asked if we have a compost pile, but we don’t need one. We use everything; we figure out a way.”
She’s figured out a lot in these seven years of business which, early on, was successful.
“The book Outliers states that you have to spend 10,000 hours to be an expert at something,” she says. “To an outsider, it looks like you’re an overnight success, but nobody knows what you’re doing in the middle of the night.”
Her trajectory to success was so much shorter than the typical 8 to 10 years for most businesses that researchers at the University of Texas spent time studying her business and technique. They ascertained that in 24 months, she had put in 16,000 hours.
“I was making jelly every day,” she says.
That certainly hasn’t stopped. At last count, she’s developed 400 flavors “and have not run out of ideas yet.” Not one, needless to say, is straight-up strawberry or grape. She leaves those to Smucker’s. Instead, hers include — according to what’s in season — such mouthwatering offerings as Blood Orange Lavender Marmalade, Apple Butter, Onion Fig Jam, Six Pepper Jelly, Raspberry Chipotle Jam, Lemon Lavender Curd, Daddy’s Bacon Jam.
As to where she comes up with such combinations, she asserts that recipes “are more like a spark. Inspiration. They’re divinely inspired. I think God speaks creativity through you. That’s how I feel about my work. The idea wasn’t me; it just came through me. The idea is always in the atmosphere.
When an idea comes up, you either take it,” she says, reaching up to grasp a handful of air, “or”…and here she blows it away, like a kiss to the universe, “it goes to the next person. Every idea is in the airwaves, if you’re open to receiving it. You just have to decide to be open to the experience.”