The Last of the Summer Tomatoes

There was never a shortage of tomato sauce in August with mamma and nonna at the stove.

 By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

It’s one of the many beautiful traditions growing up Italian. Not only was it a family thing, but friends joined together to share in the culture—no matter how early it was.

It’s only 6 a.m. and you can hear people — somewhere in the house — laughing, yakking and clanging pots. Chi sapeva che comincissiano così presto alla mattina? “Who knew they would start this early?”

Well, August is nearly here and it’s time to preserve i pomodori, “the tomatoes,” prima che marciscono, “before they go bad!”

Of course, tomatoes weren’t the only food items to conserve. There was la conserva, tomato paste to make and hot peppers to string. Look in any Italian backyard and you’d find pureed tomatoes spread over wooden trays, and red hot peppers dangling from a pole, basking in the sun to dry. When the paste thickened to just the right consistency — moms knew exactly when that was — it was stored in stoneware crock pots. After the peppers dried, they too were stashed away, until needed. But, these are stories for another time.

On the day when tomatoes were to be jarred, conservare i pomodori, everyone pitched in, anche le comari. The lady of the house was the Production Manager for the day; everyone else followed orders. Since no one family grew enough homegrown tomatoes, the hunt was on to contract outside sources, who usually were the huckster or the old farmer. Ladies, seeking only the perfect fruit, reminded each other to check the bottom of the bushels; that’s where they like to hide the bad ones!

Weekends were the best times for canning, when more people were available to help. The whole undertaking took place in basement kitchens. No way was such a messy cooking job permitted in the upstairs kitchen — not on my new stove!

After the equipment was sterilized, the tomatoes thoroughly washed, then quartered, they were fed into large tub-like pots. A healthy dose of fresh basil, salt and a bit of pepper, was applied. Once cooked, the tomatoes went through the passaverdura, “grinder,” to remove skins and seeds, then the pureed sauce went through a re-boiling before being jarred.

The whole project was well organized, the envy of Ford and his auto assembly line. When the sauce was ready, one person poured the delicious red sauce into quart jars, and another wiped off the rim of the jars, before putting on the lids. At the end of the line, stood a strong-arm person ready to twist the covers tight, with the help of a mappin. Even the kids had a job. They listened to the pop of a jar lid, then excitedly announced, This one popped!

Canning was a lot of work, but fun. A day when neighbors helped one another, creating tomato sauce, fatto a mano, “something created by our own hands.”

“Tis the last… [tomato]… rose of summer left blooming alone; All her lovely companions; Are faded and gone.” ⁓ Thomas Moore

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