People mark the passage of the seasons in many ways. In winter some look for the groundhog’s shadow to determine how much longer the season will last. In spring, the lengthening days are welcomed by those who long for summer’s heat. And some wait anxiously for the leaves to change colour so that they can declare the arrival of the fall. In the house of Cream Puff, you know fall is on its way when it’s time to "do the tomatoes".
At the beginning of each September, a call is sent out by the matriarch of every Italian family. The call goes out far and wide and it is a signal to communicate with other family members and decide the all-important date. That is, the date that everyone will gather at an appointed place, aprons in hand, in order to prepare tomato sauce for the coming year. Those of us who are immigrants or children of immigrants have found our own unique way of describing the event. We call it: "doing the tomatoes".
I will ask my friend, "So when are you doing the tomatoes?"
And she will reply, "We’re probably doing them next Sunday. And you?"
I’m quite certain that this is horrible grammar but it’s one of the expressions that we’ve adopted as Italian Canadians. It doesn’t matter what part of Italy your family came from. When someone tells you they’re doing the tomatoes, you know exactly what they mean.
Tomato day is always a Saturday. For the last four years, the makeshift tomato sauce factory is set up at our house, in the garage. Together with other family members, we turn our humble little property into the site of big-time tomato sauce production.
The day begins very early with the washing the tomatoes, usually done by the older women in the family. Efficiently, they wash every tomato that will eventually be processed. When you consider that we will typically go through five bushels of tomatoes for each family that’s part of the group … well … that’s a lot of tomatoes!
The next step in this very long day is the cutting of the tomatoes. I’m sure that every family has developed its own system in this regard. In our family, we put the bushels of tomatoes in the middle of a large circle of chairs. Those of us that are younger (usually young women) sit around the bushels and begin cutting the tomatoes by removing the stem end, slicing the tomato in half and giving it the very slightest squeeze to break up the inside. We do not squeeze out all the seeds or the juice; just the very slightest of squeezes and then the tomatoes are deposited into a huge bin.
Cutting the tomatoes is one of the glory jobs on tomato day. Once you’re handed a knife, usually by an older woman in the family, you have graduated to a position of high rank in the Tomato Army. Being handed a knife means that you are entrusted with one of the key duties of tomato day: tomato inspection. For those of us that cut the tomatoes must be responsible for ensuring that a rotten tomato does not make its nasty way into the bin of cut tomatoes, waiting to be cooked.
When you are initially handed the knife, an older person will still occasionally eye you. This is to keep you on your toes and ensure that you are paying attention. But deep down, they know and you know that you are ready.
Prior to being handed a knife, you fill whatever role the adults give you. In a way, you become a jack-of-all-trades. Before I was given the honour of cutting tomatoes, I washed dirty utensils, I made sure that the driveway was clean of tomato bits, I fetched whatever items were needed, I answered the phone, I set the table before lunch, I washed the dishes after lunch, and … I made espresso.
Ah, yes. Go make some espresso. Throughout tomato day, young people will often be sent to go make some espresso. When I first started to do this I was excited because I knew that I was edging ever closer to cutting the tomatoes. After a few years of this, however, I became very annoyed and even petulant. I hated making coffee for the adults and then having to bring it to them. I hated it so much that I would often break one of the cardinal rules of doing the tomatoes: don’t ever complain.
Making espresso came to symbolize the very apex of kitchen drudgery. I felt used. I felt down-trodden. Until, that is, I figured out what was really going on.
When my grandparents got older and it became more difficult for them to help, I was finally granted the honour of tomato-cutting. And on that day, I came to understand the way of things. While someone else went to "make some espresso", a discussion ensued between some family members. But this was not a typical tomato day discussion about the quality of the tomatoes or whether or not the sauce was too liquidy.
This was gossip. Good gossip. In one mind-blowing moment, my family’s charming and wholesome facade was shattered. I learned about affairs, betrayals, stolen land, love triangles, revenge … I’m telling you … it made The Sopranos look like a cartoon show for toddlers.
How glad I was to finally be cutting tomatoes!
But back to the main story. After the tomatoes have been cut, they are dumped into huge cauldrons with enough water to begin cooking them. We do not cook them all the way through, however, we do allow the water to come to the boil. Heating the tomatoes in this way makes them easier to process. This work is always done by the women in the family. Armed with enormous wooden spoons, they watch over the cut tomatoes with all the wisdom and experience that they’ve earned through the years. To their credit, they are precise and efficient beyond belief. The women in my family rock … and no tomato is ever burnt!
Once the tomatoes are heated, it’s time to process them. Until a few years ago, we processed our tomatoes in a hand-cranked machine. As children, we would beg to be allowed to turn the crank. This lasted for a few minutes until it began to feel that our arms would fall off. Happily, we modernized and splurged on a huge tomato processor that crushes the tomatoes while separating the seeds and the skins. A worthwhile investment, this machine allows us to process tomatoes at a much faster rate. Plus no one ends up feeling like they’re arms are going to fall off.
Once all the tomatoes have passed through the processor, the resulting tomato puree is boiled in huge pots. As soon as the puree, or sauce, comes to a rolling boil, we salt the sauce and let it come to the boil again. At this point, we are ready for the greatest job of them all: filling the tomato jars.
As with the washing of the tomatoes, this job is usually reserved for older family members. Once again, no one argues with their right to fill the jars. They’ve earned it. Prior to filling the jars, basil leaves are stuffed inside each one. This basil will flavour the sauce once the jars have been sealed.
In the old days, the filled jars would be processed in a water bath in order to seal them properly. Once again modern technology has allowed for improvements to this process. Because we can sterilize and heat jars in the dishwasher, we simply pour our hot sauce into hot jars, put on the lid and turn the jars upside down. They seal perfectly without any need for a water bath.
The jars are then covered with a blanket and left for several days to cool completely. Once cool, they are stored in the cold cellar where they will nourish the family in the year to come.
In recent years, some family members have wondered about the necessity of doing the tomatoes. High quality tomato purees are readily available in supermarkets and they really are good. They’re inexpensive as well. But in the end, these thoughts go nowhere because no one is willing to give up doing the tomatoes.
In our hectic lives, doing the tomatoes is one of the very few traditions left over from our Italian roots that we still practice. Very few people make sausages or cure meats at home any more. Hardly anyone makes home made pasta and even with the recent renewal of interest in baking, I don’t know a lot of people who bake at home on a regular basis.
Doing the tomatoes is the one thing we still hold on to. It’s always a special day; one where we know we’re continuing a long and storied tradition. In the end, it’s so comforting. It’s comforting to be with your family. It’s comforting to be using your hands to prepare food that will sustain you through the year to come.
So if you’re ever in the Toronto area at the beginning of September, let Cream Puff know. We can always use some extra hands. And if, at a certain point during the day, we send you to go and make some espresso, don’t worry. Your time will come.