End of August brings heat; heat brings tomatoes. This year we’ve got around sixty plants, down from 120 a few years ago, when we canned 300 quarts of tomatoes. Only thirty or so of these plants are really canning tomatoes—smooth, round varieties with nice acidity and a tendency not to crack. I swear by Celebrity, but am also a fan of Fantastic. The rest of our plants are heirlooms and such: red and yellow and pink Brandywines, Mr. Stripey, Costoluto Genevese, Juliet, Hillbilly, Oxheart, Persimmon, Red Lightning, Fourth of July. We try a few new kinds every year. Ohio is a great state for tomatoes. When I tell people that tomatoes are one reason we left Oregon for the Midwest, I’m not really joking.
The tomatoes pile up on plates on the kitchen counter until it becomes clear that they need addressing or we’ll be dealing with rotten tomatoes and swarms of fruit flies. And so, canning day. I put on one of my canning dresses, old faded cotton calico shifts I sewed years ago—cool, thin fabric for a hot job. It’s in the eighties outside; we have no air conditioning, and a fan blows the flames on the stove, slowing things down, so no fan, either. Out in the garden, we load stainless steel bowls with fruit and haul them back to the kitchen for washing and sorting. Anything less than perfect gets cut up and made into juice, Cris’ speciality. He’ll spend all day chopping and heating and squeezing and reheating, even though he doesn’t really drink the juice; he makes it for me. I start every day with a glass of tomato juice, often liberally spiked with hot sauce, also made by Cris. Good husband, good juice.
My job is peeling the whole tomatoes and packing them into jars. I love this, and every time remember watching my mom do the same work, dropping the fruit into a pot of boiling water on the stove until the skin splits or the flesh gives slightly, then pulling them out with a slotted spoon and quenching them in a bowl of cold water. The skin slips off easily, now, revealing the slightly grainy flesh of the tomato. When I’ve got a huge bowlful, I pack them in the jars with lemon juice and salt, squishing them down with my fist, which just fits inside the rim. Cris’ hands are too big for this task.
For a while we used a boiling water canner, but we’ve moved on to pressure canning—much faster. Once the pressure is up, the little weight clatters back and forth releasing steam for twenty minutes. Then the jars cool, the indentations on the lids popping as they seal. We drink icy beer and listen.
Yesterday we canned fourteen quarts of whole tomatoes and seven of juice. People always ask if we can sauce or salsa, but I don’t see the point. Whole tomatoes go in anything. Besides, sauce is a good thing to make in the winter, standing over the stove sautéing onions in the cold kitchen.