Saturday, August 14, 2010
Despite the fact that my paternal grandparents were "right off the boat", as the expression goes, my grandmother never canned her own tomatoes. She did make her own sausage, a variety known as soperasato, which hung in the basement by the wine barrel. But for the experience of canning tomatoes, I had to go to our friend Caroline's house.
Caroline's grandmother was so off the boat she even cooked rabbit and spoke less English than my grandparents. At any rate, one Saturday in August was dedicated to the family enterprise of canning enough tomatoes to stock each household with the requisite jars to make "gravy" every Sunday of the year. I have no idea what time they arose, but by 9am the production was in full swing. One uncle was in charge of lunch for everyone and this was usually sausage and peppers on good Italian rolls. Bushels and bushels of tomatoes decorated the backyard. Each person played a part. One cousin washed the tomatoes. Someone's mother dropped them into the rolling water bath that would make it possible to remove their skins quickly, and someone else dropped them into the ice bath that would help them cool. Another aunt was in charge of peeling the tomatoes, and yet another cored and chopped. One of the uncles was in charge of the handmill that ground the tomatoes and collected the seeds. Caroline's grandmother oversaw the cooking of the tomatoes, which involved just the right amount of basil and garlic. Another family member was responsible for the jars, which had to be washed meticulously and kept hot. When enough of the "sauce" had cooked and was ready to be canned, it was time to pour the sauce through a special funnel into the clean, hot mason jars. These jars were then transported to the family's basement kitchen ( at one time in South Philly, everyone had a kitchen in their cellar) and there the actual canning took place. The jars were carefully placed inside a large wire basket that held about 6 quart jars at a time and lowered into the bath, where they would be boiled for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, labels were prepared with the day's date on them, to be added once the jars cooled.
The aroma of tomato sauce filled the neighborhood, and truth be told, more than one neighbor dropped by, more in the hope of getting one of those sausage and pepper sandwiches than for getting a free jar of sauce.
When my parents built a home in the mountains, it wasn't long before we had our own garden. They took a considerable amount of pride in the bounty this garden brought forth and, despite the fact that my father is and always was a flaming conservative who pooh-poohs anything having to do with the environment, he was into organic gardening before most people knew what it was. Soon, he grew more than we could eat and the desire to make use of it all, coupled with the pride that could not bear to see any of it go to waste, meant some other use had to be found for everything. My mother learned to can. We went to Heckman's Orchards in nearby Effort, PA. to buy Mason jars, Ball lids and rings, and a cookbook to instruct her on the fine art of canning.
It wasn't long before my mother was canning her own "gravy" and my father would interrogate her at every Sunday dinner to make sure it had been made with the tomatoes she jarred.
Somewhere along the way, the house got sold, and so did all the canning equipment. One summer, after visiting a farm in Tabernacle, New Jersey to pick raspberries, I got the bright idea to give canning tomatoes a try. First, it's remarkable how many bushels are needed for just a few quarts of sauce. Then there is the equipment. I invested in a large canning kettle which doubles in our family as a crab steamer. I also needed the jars and lids, a food mill to grind the tomatoes and a funnel through which to spoon them into the jars. The trip to New Jersey would take place one day and the canning enterprise on the next. I did this for a few years and then one day decided tomato puree from the can works just fine. It was an exhausting enterprise better accomplished with the work of many hands, and my kids were too small to help.
Fast forward to today. Last Saturday, Bud, my CSA farmer, emailed to see he was sending "paste tomatoes" and that he'd love it if all of us would give making homemade spaghetti sauce a try. Bud puts so much love and effort into his crops that I felt I'd be letting him down if I didn't take him up on this, so guess what's on the stove? A bushel of Roma tomatoes, peeled, cored and pureed, along with some garlic and basil from Bud's farm. The smell is heavenly. I'm going to add a little lump crabmeat right before we're ready to eat dinner.
When we took about lost traditions, this is one I would love to give a new lease on life every August. Some things are easier than they used to be. For instance, I can use a food processer to puree the tomatoes, and the microwave works just fine in keeping the Mason jars hot. Canning is one of those simple activities than can be lovingly performed. It links us to a bygone era when families joined in so that many hands made lighter work and everyone reaped the benefits. Even in the dead of winter, opening a Mason jar full of preserved tomatoes can hearken us back to a beautiful August day where the aroma of sausage and peppers on a roll comes alive, as well as memories of an entire family working together in a tiny South Philadelphia rowhouse.