The brunch favorite of New Yorkers and gentrifiers everywhere, Sqirl gets the lid blown off a mold controversy, spurring conversation around other long-festering issues.
If you logged onto Twitter this weekend, then you were inevitably swept up in the controversy surrounding Sqirl’s allegedly moldy jam. Perhaps you have even eaten some of this jam yourself, like when your friends from out of town demand you take them there because they read about it online.
It all started when former employees told Joe Rosenthal that plastic buckets of Sqirl’s house jam would sit out in a secret kitchen, sans lids, and grow mold, which would be scraped off before the product was sold. The saga, which Rosenthal titled “The Fungal,” unfolded over his Instagram stories. The mold allegedly came from an outdated fan that spread the spores around the room. These mold-scraping allegations span from as early as 2012 to as recently as this week.
“It was often put away while still warm/not brought to temp properly,” one anonymous former employee wrote. “Adding to that it was also stored in uncovered buckets that weren’t rotated, labeled or dated properly. Some of us would try and make an effort to remedy it to no avail. There was just a genuine lack of structure and accountability.”
According to Rosenthal, employees said some workers were asked to hide with the buckets of jam in an “illegal hidden kitchen space” during inspections where they’d be locked in with the lights off and a garbage bag over the door until the inspection was over.
One anonymous employee said that Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow told them directly to scrape off the mold. One employee said they were told they could scoop the mold off if they went two inches down. Another employee said they were told the jam was supposed to be moldy.
Sqirl responded to the moldy jam saga on their own Instagram stories, saying that low-sugar jam is susceptible to the same types of mold that grow on cheese, charcuterie and dry-aged beef. The post further claims that all jam production is now done off-site at a licensed catering kitchen and that the jam formerly made on-site was done so legally and labeled accordingly.
Bulk jam would occasionally develop mold, the post admitted, which they “handled with the guidance of preservation mentors and experts like Dr. Patrick Hickey, by discarding mold and several inches below the mold or by discarding containers altogether.”
The BBC sent out a release this morning referencing a 2014 article that featured mycologist Dr. Patrick Hickey talking about, naturally, mold and how safe it is or isn’t to eat. That article does say that jams are fine if you scrape the mold off.
It wasn’t clear if Sqirl actually received guidance from Hickey or if they just read what he had to say on that particular article, so I emailed him for more information and insight into jam mold.
“The programme I contributed that aired on BBC in 2014 was aimed for a domestic audience, and was later picked up in 2019 newspaper article,” he said. “I expect that the Squirl reference to my name arose from finding this article, I have never actually spoken to them directly. I think at home, a person can make an informed decision if they want to risk salvaging mildly spoiled food, however in a commercial setting, the sale of food that has started to decompose seems irresponsible.
“Sugar is the preservative that prevents mould growth. The low-sugar content of this particular recipe of jam probably means that it is more susceptible to spoilage and mould can grow quicker and deeper. The same would go for a “low-salt brine” or “low vinegar” pickles if they were a thing (I sincerely hope not!). My advice would be to make jam ‘the old fashioned way’ with high sugar, and if required it would be “watered down” on the day of preparation.”
And as New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao points out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not advise scraping off mold.
And Stephen Wade, a master food preserver, went on a whole thread about “a certain CA jam company” and its questionable canning practices, which you can read here.
The mold, however, is only the top layer — perhaps the top layer one might scrape off — of the Sqirl controversy.
Koslow came under fire for a 2016 Eater article, in which she described her money-saving “cheat” as the restaurant’s location. “My cheat is this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon,” she said. “The cheat is, like, I pay two dollars per square foot.”
A lot of folks didn’t appreciate a gentrifier calling the area she helped gentrify “a shitty corner.” Just a few days ago, Jimbo Times published this poignant piece on how businesses like Sqirl and Melody have changed Virgil Village, also noting how social distancing has tempered Sqirl’s constant overwhelmingly white lines.
“Before L.A.’s stay at home orders, the restaurant’s lines were a frequent reminder for local immigrant communities of just how many people in Los Angeles could still afford more than $15 on a salad, even while on the same block families struggle to make $15 an hour to keep up with the rising cost of living each year.”
What’s more, some of the other recent, non-mold allegations against Sqirl involve employees, many of whom are people of color, who claim Koslow took credit for their recipes and work while continuing to profit off fancy jams and cookbooks. They include Javier Ramos and Ria Dolly Barbosa, who commented that she was never paid or credited for recipes that appeared in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, nor several that appeared in the first Sqirl cookbook.
It may be mold on jam that’s getting all the attention now, but it seems like things have been festering for some time.