Tomato wars and the Italian elixir of life

SCOTT FRIEDMAN

Ah September, the end of summer vacation and the start of another school year. It’s also the end of tomato season, and growing up in the 1950s that meant canning.

Awakened at sunrise by my father, who by 4:30 a.m. had already had his coffee and set up the grinding machine, my sister and I in our threadbare jeans and baggy sweatshirts would tramp sleepy-eyed outside in the crisp fall air to a galvanized wash tub half-filled with red ripe plum tomatoes and water from the garden hose. She and I, seated on overturned peach baskets or old card table chairs, would one by one wash off a tomato in the icy water, flick off the stem, slit the round end with a paring knife, hold the fruit under the surface and squeeze out the seeds. The squashed fruits were tossed into a clean basket and each layer dusted with salt to draw out the water. Nineteen-and-a-half more bushels sat waiting for us when that one was done.

From time to time Dad would take away the basket and dump the squished tomatoes into a caldron-sized steel pot on the stove where they would simmer until they were a molten mix of stewed flesh and juice. Then, using a saucepan as an over-sized ladle, he’d pour the steaming emulsion into the hopper of the tomato strainer set up on our screened-in back porch. With a rubber belt rigged to an electric motor, the apparatus bumped and rattled like a cement mixer as it turned an auger that churned the tomatoes, forcing the juice out through a strainer on one side and pushing the peels and remaining seeds forward into a crock for discarding. The red liquid was taken back to the kitchen to cook in another giant pot while the first pot was refilled with tomatoes from our basket.

In a glass mason jar, warmed in a pan of hot water so it wouldn’t break when filled, Mom would drop a couple of fresh basil leaves and pour in the bubbling hot sauce. She’d cap the jar with a flat lid and screw on a brass ring. Filled jars were set aside, and every minute or so one would pop as the lid was sucked down to seal the jar. The rings were then unscrewed to be used again and any jars that hadn’t sealed would be re-boiled and re-bottled.

Outside, by afternoon we’d be fighting off pesky yellow jackets buzzing about drunkenly on tomato fumes. Somewhere around the 15th bushel our backs would be stiff, our wrists would ache, our forearms would throb, and our fingers would be pruney green and tomato-stem smelly.

That’s when war would break out.

It would begin with an “Oops” as somebody “accidentally” lifted the slit end of a tomato out of the water sending the seeds flying. Retaliation was swift. A slit tomato could be aimed with delightful accuracy. Attacks and counterattacks would gleefully rage. It just wasn’t canning day if tomato seeds weren’t stuck to our clothes and dripping from our faces and hair.

By evening, 250 quarts of tomato puree, the Italian elixir of life, would be canned. And before the end of the following summer we’d run out and get ready to do it all over again.

Sebastian Rizzo is a member of the Madison-Old Bridge Township Historical Society. He occasionally writes the “Living History” column for Newspaper Media Group. The historical society invites readers to share memories of Old Bridge for its newsletter. Send stories to history@thomas-warne-museum.com or mail to 4216 Route 516, Matawan 07747-7032. For more information, visit www.thomas-warne-museum.com.