Down in the Cellar, Italian Families Came Together to Bottle Up Memories

Everything we ever needed was right under our nose, and it still is.

Tis the last tomato of summer left dangling on the vine; All her luscious beauty, smooth and shiny is plucked and regenerated into a heavenly, thick red sauce.

By: Tony Traficante

“Marron che profumo!” Yes, indeed! The house was filled with the distinct aroma of boiling tomatoes, the chatter, and the undeniable clang of heavy metal pots. It was canning day! And it was coming from “a bascia ul cell!” Well, where else would Italian Moms do their heavy cooking, but in the 2nd kitchen of the house — the basement?

The memory of canning tomatoes “è per sempre,” is forever. It was a wonderful seasonal tradition for many Italian immigrant families, as was the crushing of grapes for wine in the fall. Both fruit off the vine. The nice thing about both these events was many neighbors came together to share in the joy! And yes, tomatoes are fruit, but unlike the grape, it is not used in a fruit salad!

Canning day was serious, and a social event. A team of neighbors took turns helping one another. The lady of the house was Host and Production Manager for the occasion. Orders were given, and drinks and food treats were provided.

Since no one family grew enough of their homegrown tomatoes, the hunt to supplement from outside sources began early. For many, the local huckster, or the old roving farmer would suffice. For others, it was off to the wholesale yards, for bigger quotas. No matter, beware for the Ladies were adept at searching for the best fruit, warning “Check the bottom of the bushels; that’s where they like to hide the ‘bad’ ones!”

Most of the canning was done on the weekends when more people were available to help. The whole undertaking took place in the basement kitchen areas. No way was such a messy cooking job permitted in the upstairs kitchen. “Not on my new stove,” said Moms, while Dads silently murmured, “Why did I ever buy that new stove!”

After sterilizing all the necessary equipment, the tomatoes were washed, quartered, then fed to boiling water in tub-like pots. A dose of fresh basil, salt, maybe some oregano, a bit of pepper, and other herbs to one’s taste, was added and the simmering began. I do remember when the tomatoes were boiled, whole, with the skin easily slipping of their red bods. That perhaps was in the days when a family may not have had a “passaverdura,” grinder, to do the job. After a second round of simmering, the sauce was ready to be jarred.

The whole project was as well organized as any commercial production line!  One person poured the delicious red sauce into quart jars, followed by another wiping 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,” a dishcloth.  Even the kids had a job. They stood guard to alert the line that “This jar popped!”

Part of the tomato crop was saved to make “la conserva,” tomato paste. After these tomatoes were pureed, they were laid out on large wooden trays, to dry in the hot sun. One of my jobs was to frequently, and carefully, stir the paste with a long wooden ladle. When it was at the right consistency, then cooled, the paste was poured into stoneware crock pots and stored.

Canning was work, but it was also fun and satisfying to know you were creating something wonderful and delicious! Most of all, it was a day when neighbor helped neighbor, creating, “roba fatto a mano,” homemade food!

But wait! Tomatoes weren’t the only food preservation project of the summer. There were several other fruits and vegetables preserved in one manner or another. But that’s a story for another time.

And lest we forget! Somewhere outside, sewn together with the precision of a surgeon, dangling from poles to dry, were strings of long, red hot peppers. They, too, would be stashed in a cool, dry place to await frying in hot oil and sprinkled over the “ragu” atop a steaming dish of pasta.

“Mama mia veramento un ottimo gusto picante!’ Truly a deliciously spicy taste, indeed!

“Buon appetito a tutti!”

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