Summer in a Jar

One afternoon, my wife and I came home to find our dining room overrun with 100 pounds of fragrant roma tomatoes.
Sturdy white cardboard boxes with wire handles, each about twice the size of a shoebox and piled high with the fruit, covered the entire table.

My father-in-law had delivered on a promise. A grocer before he retired, he loves selecting produce as much as he loves making a good deal on it. That week, Dorothy had asked him to get us some tomatoes so we could make sauce. With a few old friends still in wholesale, this request was right in his sweet spot.

Now, both my wife and I can make a nice pot of sauce with five pounds of tomatoes. But faced with 100 pounds, we spent a week ignoring them. Busy with two young children and a third on the way, we ate our meals in the kitchen and enjoyed the farmers market aroma in the dining room, averting our eyes when we passed through. That worked until we spotted a few emerging mold spots on the harvest.

So, we gathered plenty of canning supplies and ancillary ingredients — onions, carrots, celery, parsley and basil. That Saturday, we rose early, expecting that a 5 a.m. start washing and chopping would allow us to get everything cooking before the kids woke. Maybe we'd have the sauce canned by mid-afternoon. Coffee brewing, whispering to each other as we tiptoed around the kitchen, we filled pot after pot on the stove and set them to simmer.

By the time the kids woke at 7, we had made barely a dent in our inventory. We called in the reinforcements.

I hadn't given canning much thought since my childhood in New Jersey. My mom went through an era of enthusiasm for home food preservation, which I found both magical and a little weird. Her strawberry jam was tasty, but how it thickened and then stayed good in the jar was a complete mystery: Strawberries simmering on the stove, boiling water, canning tongs — I didn't understand how it all worked. My brothers and I helped her pick the strawberries at a u-pick farm, and our contribution ended until it was time to make a peanut butter sandwich. We'd find the jam on the gray metal utility shelves in the basement, fastidiously labeled with thin strips of index card.

We'd consume the strawberry jam before the year was out, but other jars grew dusty, their labels testifying to some alien quality. Just what was in that jar labeled "Chutney, Summer 1984"? How could it possibly still be edible in spring 1987? And why would I want to find out?

When I moved to Cleveland as an adult, canning suddenly emerged as an answer to a really important question. How could we enjoy some part of summer in the middle of a sunless Northeast Ohio winter? Canning, I realized, didn't have to be chutney or even jam. It could be tomato sauce, which has the added benefit of going really well with meatballs.

My wife's parents arrived that Saturday morning, rolled up their sleeves and jumped into the fray. They chopped, stirred, shifted pots around. We took turns tending to the children while the others cooked. The whole thing felt like a dance, children either underfoot or hanging off someone's hips, munching on carrots or Cheerios, the four of us trading places around our small kitchen, handing off knives and dripping cutting boards, exchanging parsley for a bowl of tomatoes, taking steaming pots from the stove to crank the mix through a food mill — sometimes with a 3-year-old helping — and getting everything back on the stove to cook down.

By midday, our four-burner stove was at capacity, and two pots needed more thickening. Our neighbors, bless them, earned a few jars of the good stuff by lending their kitchen to the operation. (Apparently, raising children isn't the only thing that takes a village.)

As the sauce thickened, I grew anxious — we were arriving at the mysterious canning process. Why don't we just freeze it, I offered? Wouldn't that be easier? Proposal denied. We forged ahead, shifting sauce off the stove and out of the biggest pots so we could boil water to sterilize jars and lids. (Canning, by the way, doesn't involve cans.)

We worked all through the day, barely pausing for sandwiches. And as the day progressed, the process — the tongs, the boiling water — became much less mysterious. We were just three generations of a family making and preserving food together in essentially the same way a family might have done a century ago.

Long after my in-laws went home and the kids and Dorothy went to bed, I was still simmering sauce, sterilizing jars and filling them, dancing from stove to table and back, trying not to scald myself.

I felt a particular kind of satisfaction that night, looking at all the jars lined up on the table, filled with fresh sauce my family and friends would enjoy long after summer was gone. It was more than just preserved food. Here were artifacts: testaments to a food-loving family's communal effort, those 40 glass jars, their lids tightening as they cooled, summer's ambassadors to the winter months, a red army of culinary love.

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