I first tasted red pepper jelly one very hungover morning on vacation with friends. There was no jelly in the house, or anything approximating it, unless you count the three jars of mint jelly, all unopened. Rummaging around the fridge, my friend reached way back and pulled out a jar of something bright red and spread some on her bagel. It was red pepper jelly, bright and sweet and slightly spicy. It was utterly delicious. We fell upon the jar like scavengers, and finished the whole thing that first day.
If you think hot pepper jelly isn’t something that would normally be breakfast-y, think again. Our palates demand something sweet and something savory in the morning—a goal usually achieved by eating one of those savory KIND bars that feel virtuous but are actually just salty Kudos bars. If you’re dedicated to this kind of taste experience early in the morning and don’t have the wherewithal to whip up a plate of candied bacon and a side of grits at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, red pepper jelly fulfills the need you didn’t even know you had.
Similar to other fruit preserves, red pepper jelly is made with peppers—sweet or hot, but hot is usually preferred—a healthy glug of vinegar, and sugar. I’ve had pepper jelly made with jalapeños and habaneros infused with mango, but best of all was the hot crawfish jelly transported back from New Orleans. Eating preserved crawfish is not something I’d recommend, but the glowing vermilion and jewel-like color of the jar was reassuring. The ingredients—crawfish and shrimp boil spices, sugar, vinegar, pectin—produced the same magical effect your standard red pepper jelly would. There was tang, sweetness, and a bright acidity, all wrapped up with a lingering heat, but nothing too crazy. A hot pepper jelly shouldn’t make you want to eat a napkin because you’re in so much pain. It should tickle and tease but never overwhelm.
Usually, pepper jellies are the mysterious red substance on the table with other appetizers, a viscous spread that plays nicely with cream cheese when spread on crackers and washed down with Chardonnay. Perhaps you’ve encountered pepper jelly and cream cheese sandwiches at some point in your life, though I’m not sure where one would—a cotillion? something debutante-related?—and if so, you associate this delicacy with meals that come decidedly after breakfast. Both applications of my favorite condiment earn my stamp of approval, but I urge you to try it for breakfast.
Finding it in your normal grocery store is tricky; I’ve seen it at Whole Foods but not at the regular grocery store around the corner. The best place to buy hot jelly, if not from a farm stand or the airport or wherever artisanal jellies are sold, is the home goods section of your local T.J. Maxx or Marshalls. Between the off-brand non-stick skillets and the already-opened Tupperware mega packs lurk a world of culinary delights: jars and bottles of condiments, the kind of stuff that used to live at a gift shop and wound up on the bottom shelf of a brightly lit discount store, waiting for you to give it a new home. If you find it, buy it. Take it home. Use it. Give it a month. See how you feel. It’ll be worth it, I promise.