For a canning champion, this Utah State Fair might be her last

Pam Carson learned to make jam from her grandmother, and at 77 is passing her canning talent to her granddaughters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonalee Kump and Heather Bailey, at left, assist Pam Carson, 77, as she enters her jams, fruits and pickles for the State Fair, in the Zion Building at the Utah State Fair Park, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

When Pam Carson was a young mother in 1974, she canned some jam and fruit, and entered the results in the Utah State Fair — and won a first-prize ribbon for her raspberry jam.

She kept competing, year after year, cherishing her many ribbons. Now 77, Carson has once again submitted a couple dozen jars of jams, fruits and vegetables into the canning competition of the Utah State Fair, which opens its annual run Thursday and goes through Sept. 17 at the Utah State Fairpark, 1000 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City.

Along the way, Carson — who learned to make jam from her grandmother — has been passing along her talents to her five granddaughters, who have taken up canning as a family activity.

“They really liked the jam,” Carson said. “They knew I was doing it, and they watched me do it. And so when they started getting old enough to help, they would do their own.”

One granddaughter, Mei Li Ho, 15 and a student at Skyline High School, said it’s fun because “I like to spend time with my cousins and my grandma.”

Ho entered jars of pickle spears to this year’s fair. She said she had fun cutting cucumber slices into heart shapes for decoration. (She said the judges haven’t tasted the pickle entries for several years, so the competition is based entirely on presentation.)

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonalee Kump and Heather Bailey assist Pam Carson, 77, as she enters her jams, fruits and pickles for the State Fair, in the Zion Building at the Utah State Fair Park, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

But with the 50th anniversary of her first win around the corner, Carson said this may be the last year she enters.

“This is exhausting,” said Carson, a retired middle-school teacher in Salt Lake City, of the canning process. “It’s taking me a lot longer to do everything.”

It takes between three and five hours of boiling to turn fruit into jam, Carson said — to bring out the fruit’s natural pectin, the soluble fiber that thickens jams and jellies. Many cooks add a packet of prepared pectin, which cuts the process down to about two hours, she said. Then the jam is ladled into jars, which are sealed and then boiled.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pam Carson, 77, has entered jams, fruits and pickles in the State Fair, since 1974. This year she is also entering some pickles that her granddaughters canned, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

For jelly, Carson said, one strains the fruit before putting it into jars, to get all the solid bits out, leaving only the juice to set up. “I prefer the jam,” Carson said. “There’s more fruit flavor. It’s more substantial.”

To make canned jams for competition, details are important, Carson said. “It has to have a clear color,” she said. “There’s no bubbles in it, there’s no sediment in it. If you’re using pectin, you have to get the extra pectin off right after you get through boiling.”

Carson said she has searched all over Utah to find the right fruits for her jams.

“There were these two women who made a raspberry farm in Lehi, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to support women,’” Carson said. “So I went and bought theirs, and I made jam and I didn’t like it. The flavor wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t bright.”

Eventually, she said, she went to the Weeks Berries you-pick orchard in Paradise, in Cache County, “and theirs were perfect,” she said. “They were the color and the taste I was looking for.” Weeks Berries is a regular fixture at the Downtown Farmers Market in Pioneer Park, “which I was grateful for, because I didn’t want to drive to Paradise,” she said.

One of Carson’s entries this year is a raspberry-huckleberry jam, made with huckleberries she picked some time ago near Paris, Idaho, and put in the freezer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pam Carson's Raspberry-Huckleberry Jam, entered in the State Fair, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

“We drove 14 miles up the canyon, we parked the car, we hiked up the mountain. And I got less than a cup of huckleberries,” Carson said. “Then I came back and I blended it with the raspberries, and that is my best jam.”

Carson moved to Utah from Michigan in 1964 to attend Brigham Young University, and never left. She said she learned to make jams from her grandmother, who grew raspberries in the backyard of her Salt Lake City home.

After graduating from BYU and marrying her husband, Lynn, in 1968, Carson started canning at home. She started getting competitive, she said, when she entered her jams at the Utah State Fair in 1974 and her raspberry jam won first place. She kept canning jams, fruits and vegetables.

(Photo courtesy of Pam Carson) Pam Carson, right, with her family and her first prize-winning jams from the Utah State Fair, in 1974.

Going to the fair became a family event every September, Carson said. The visits would start with checking out her jam entries, to see what ribbons she won. Then they would look at the entries in the other competitions — textile arts, photography, fine arts, creative arts and floriculture — before going to the 4-H barns to see the cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. They’d also check out the vendors, the food booths, the midway rides and the live entertainment.

In 1999, Carson said, “some young girl was singing on the outdoor stage, and I was tired, so I went and sat down and listened to her. So I told my junior-high kids, ‘There’s this woman who’s a pretty good singer,’ and they asked, ‘Who is it?’ I said, ‘Her name’s Britney Spears. I’ve never heard of her.’” (Spears was 17, and had released her debut album, “…Baby One More Time,” earlier that year.)

“My kids all laughed,” Carson said.


The Utah State Fair runs Thursday through next Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Utah State Fairpark, 1000 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City. Parking is available for a fee, but it’s recommended to take TRAX (there’s a stop at the Fairpark on the Green Line, on the way to Salt Lake City International Airport).

Tickets for the fair are available at utahstatefair.com. Tickets for the events in the Days of ‘47 Arena require a separate admission — Utah’s Own PRCA Rodeo, Friday through Sunday; ‘70s rock legend The Steve Miller Band on Tuesday night; the “’80s Rock Invasion” (featuring Stephen Pearcy of Ratt, Great White, Slaughter, Quiet Riot and Vixen), on Wednesday night; country singer Lee Brice on Thursday, Sept. 14; and rappers Yung Gravy and bbno$ on Friday, Sept. 15.