TBT: Getting Saucy

Today we embark on a grand tradition of canning tomato sauce for the rest of the year.

Funny thing is, I didn't even know people still did that, but apparently, yeah . . . it's a thing.

I was lucky enough to get indoctrinated during my first year as an honorary italian.

It started innocently enough. I was fascinated by a little antipasti dish of pickled vegetables that my mother-in-law  seem to always have available at the dinner table.

Actually, the first shock really came when I discovered that it was possible for people to eat dinner at the same time. We did breakfast in my family.

Anyway, I waited quietly as a dormouse until I caught her in the kitchen; vegetables mounded on the counter along with a very large canister of salt and the biggest bottle of vinegar I had ever seen.

I inched forward.

"Can I . . . cccccan I , , , , help?"

"Of course!"

Knowing it was my first time, she was very gentle and let me slice the carrots.

"Maybe a little smaller." she would say.

"Maybe a little thicker." she would say.

"No, I don't think you're ready for the eggplant. Maybe next time." she would say.

But I studied hard and I learned fast.

And when tomato day finally came around, I felt like I was ready.

A little history: It turns out that tomatoes actually originate from South America. Can you imagine italian cooking without tomatoes? The entire Roman Empire must have lived off of nothing but olives, cheese, and wine (later referred to as "The Blood of Christ"). I think Columbus deserves his own day, not for discovery, but for marinara.

So canning tomato day is here once again.

And there are a few particulars that are always gonna be:

First, it's gonna be a hot day. Every year we push it further and further back into the calendar and every year god doesn't care and pushes the temperature in to the high nineties.

About halfway through the tenth crate, the flies start swarming. In the fifteen years I've been making and eating and canning these vegetables, I have never seen an actual fly get into the jars, so I'm pretty sure it's not a health thing, it's just the universe's way of testing our dedication.

They're like our little Isaac.

The process is simple. We wash the tomatoes while Giulia preps the work station. We find a comfortable chair and a sharp knife and a large bucket for the castaway parts.

We begin to slice.

First the heads-into the bucket. Then the headless tomato gets halved. Then, with the gingerest of angled cuts, we remove the spongy white center and any green still left in side - into the bucket. Then the outsides, with the skin and flesh, we cut them into sections and toss those sections into a large colander and season with salt.

While the worker bees are slicing, the matriarch busies herself with washing and boiling the jars and every few minutes adding more salt to the tomatoes we just finished salting.

"Mom! I already put the salt!" my wife will say.

"Okay . . . okay." Giulia will reply before deciding to add just a little more.

This will happen seventeen times before lunch break.

Now in our home kitchen, my wife makes me nervous while watching her cut anything.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the way she holds the knife. Maybe it's the way she chops down instead of sliding across. It's definitely because she doesn't seem to know what to do with her other hand, and how distracted she gets when it occurs to her that the car insurance bill is due three months from now.

But when it comes to tomato day, she's a machine.

Every year I'm in awe.

I have tried to keep pace with her, but it's like tomato day is her secret super power. She can carry on two conversations, while simultaneously giving her sister shit over the phone for never arriving on time or at all, and not looking at her hands once.

I, on the other hand, have spent many years in the kitchen honing my deft ninja skills, I have focus and drive and the sharpest knife at the table, yet she can still out cut me two to one.

She's uncanny with her canning.

(Sorry . . . couldn't resist that one)

As the colander fills, and the salt is added on top of salt, we start scooping the fleshy bits into the freshly cleaned jars. A little bit of basil, a little bit of salt, a tight seal on the lid, and we break for lunch as Giulia places the filled jars back into the boiling water for a final bit of disinfecting.

Lunch today will be my new recipe (split pea soup with chicken and kale).

After lunch we will cut up whats left of the bits. Shoo away a few more flies and begin the clean-up.

The backyard tables will look something like a crime scene and we'll all be sticky and covered in goo.

"Ma! Take a break." my wife will say.

But Giulia will just wave a hand at her as if patting the head of an undisciplined but favorite child.

She might mumble something in italian.

I think it's a silent prayer with two meanings:


Oh Lord, let this sauce bless our tables for the year to come.

and second.

Dear Jesus, get these people out of my house so I can take a nap.


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