Thursday, February 21, 2002

Jenny’s Chickens: No fowl, just spice

Published in the Current

It’s not quite hidden, but there’s no sign out front. The only giveaway is the noise of chickens clucking and the occasional rooster’s “cock-a-doodle-doo!” Jenny’s Chickens is a small, home-based business, one of many just below the surface of Cape Elizabeth’s business community.

But the product has nothing to do with chickens, despite the ones she keeps in the garage, and in fact the business isn’t named after poultry. Instead, Jenny Campbell has borrowed the name of a Celtic reel her husband plays on the bagpipes. And she makes sofrito, a green, salsa-like sauce that is the basis for many Caribbean dishes.

“In Puerto Rican food, it just goes in everything,” Campbell said. A native of Brooklyn with a Sicilian background—Italians have a version of the sauce they call soffritto—Campbell has been making sofrito for her own use for 15 years.

She and her family moved to Cape Elizabeth seven years ago, and she always had some in the fridge. Her new friends and neighbors were always asking about the green stuff, she said.

In 2000, when her youngest son went to kindergarten, she decided to make a business of it. She chopped and cooked and her husband, a graphic designer, made the labels. She took the first case to the Pond Cove IGA, where it did well, though not in the way she would have thought.

“Everybody eats it out of the jar,” Campbell said. She also sells at the Higgins Beach Market in the summer, the Whole Foods Market in Portland, and is on the tables at Gritty McDuff’s and the Great Lost Bear, both in Portland.

In 2001, she won a Scovie “Fiery Foods” award for the sofrito, and will have a table at the New England Products Trade Show in Portland March 10-12. It’s a big jump from one of her previous jobs, making and selling felafel from a street-vendor’s cart in New York City.

She makes “under 500 cases” a year, each of which contains twelve 12-ounce jars. Each batch of 12 jars takes just under five hours, starting with cleaning the kitchen before she begins work. The process involves industrial-size food-processing machines, washing the big stockpot out, while wearing gloves and a mask to protect her from the juice of the habanero peppers that are a key ingredient in the sauce, and ending with the labeling of the jars.

She can start when her kids head off to school—two are at Pond Cove and one is at the middle school—and be done before they get home, which suits her perfectly.

“I do this so I can spend time with my kids,” she said.