I am standing at a kitchen table with three generations of farming folk, with a fourth, John, napping in the bakery. Thirty-pound baskets of fresh-picked tomatoes have been distributed over the table, along with empty buckets and serrated knives. The chairs have all been pushed back to the wall, and I am watching Jenny’s mother demonstrate how to remove the stem and then cut the tomato into pieces small enough to fit through the sauce machine.

The others: a grandmother, a father and a grandfather, and a secretary turned friend (or maybe the other way around, but I like her, she wears pink flowers in her grey hair) cut one, two, three with an ease that brings to mind images of years and years of summer days spent preparing for winter. I slice my tomatoes slowly, afraid of cutting my hands, and sometimes whisper to Chris, who is standing next to me, also trying to master a slick knife. The only sounds are the sklooshing of vegetable flesh and the droning of the window fan.

After cutting a basket or so, my upper arms are already itching with drying juice and my hands are wrinkled. I look around at the others (I can’t keep their names straight) and see that their hands are barely wet and that their table sections are clean. Maybe my tomatoes are riper or maybe I grew up storebought, and never cut more than a salad’s worth of anything. I glance at Chris; tomato guts are dripping off of his hands.

Buckets are filled, baskets are emptied and more are brought in to replace them. I am going faster now, more used to the motions and less cautious. Someone asks how many baskets of tomatoes (no, I suppose it’s ‘tamatahs’) are left. Through the kitchen door I can see a skid with a mountain of tamatahs waiting to be sliced. My wrists ache and I am sure I can feel the blisters forming, but I keep cutting and then they start to talk.

"I used to do a lot of canning when my kids were growing up, but now, with only two people..."

"You know, Fancy just puts em’ right through the machine without cutting em’ first."


"I used to can for everyone in my neighborhood. My mother tried to make me can for my sisters, but I finally said no, and then I was at the top of her spit-list. Lotta good people on the top of that list."

Just then, John peeks his head in the door and I am privileged enough to see one of my friends turn into a parent at the sight of his child’s sleepy, well-rubbed eyes. Chris carries his son off, I am left alone with Jenny’s family, and more people I do not know arrive with children in tow: one boy and one girl who dutifully go round the cutting table allowing themselves to be kissed and fawned over by the old women. Their father has come with a truck full of geese with heatstroke that need their wings clipped. Before the men go outside to deal with the birds, they talk through the current state of farm politics. It is getting hotter inside the kitchen.

"Did you hear that someone died at the railroad crossing by Vet’s bakery?"

"I know, hon! They didn’t give a name in the paper and I thought it might be Fred, so I called the Chronicle."

"Ooh, Fred’s wife is pretty. Don’t you think she’s pretty?"

"She asked me about my jelly. I don’t know, but that batch wouldn’t set. I used a digital timer and the raspberry was just fine."

"More pectin. You need a clock with a sweeper hand."

"I remember making preserves on the big stove, with six burners. I could cook dinner while the big pot boiled in back. It was hard to find time, with all the farm-work."

I sit down and rub my hands together. My fingers hurt and there is tomato underneath my nails, even after two washings, both with soap. Most of the ladies (they wear pearls and go to church on normal days, these are definitely ladies) are still chopping as fast as they were two hours ago and the men are back at the cutting table. The little girl has been handing off tomatoes to me and the others, and Chris has taken up the knife again. Skloosh! Little John has gone off to shoot the bad guys with his stick rifle.

"I'm thankful that I never had to do any work on the farm. It was hard enough raising the children and managing the house."

"I was always lucky because Jimmy helped with the cooking. I’d set the alarm most days for four, we’d sometimes can until midnight, then work the farm all day."

"Nothing shameful about a man who cooks. No sir."

"I do most of the cooking," Chris says. I want him to stay quiet, to let them forget that we are there. I want to listen.

"How is Jimmy?"

"Hanging in there. Much better now that he’s back home. It was just that one stone that he couldn’t pass."

"Carol's mother was ninety-two the first time she was ever in the hospital. She had a stroke and she was admitted and then released and two months later she passed on. Just like that."

"Sometimes I wonder about hospitals. They keep everyone alive too long. I just don’t know if it’s right."


The tomato slicers shift and change, the man with the geese goes home and then we are discussing revisionist history and the Holocaust. I do not offer any opinions while the current state of Germany is blasted. No, not until Chris brings up the unpopular theory that humans evolved from sea creatures. I am suddenly orating, going on and on about evolution and whale skulls.

"Hush," Chris says. Everyone is looking at me. I hush.

"Well, now, I don’t know much about that."

"What about seahorses? Horses that live in the sea are mammals, right?" Ba-dum-cha! It’s Chris rebreaking the ice.

"I’d say those seahorses have the right idea: giving the men the babies."

"The only reason that they take em’ is because they know they can do it twice as efficient as the lady-seahorse can. Soon as some fish came along, she’d be running away."

"She can go off and buy little shoes or whatever it is lady-seahorses like."

"That's just what they let the men think. Look at how much better you do it! You’re so big and strong."

"Children do the same thing to mothers. It’s so much better when you make a sandwich, mom. Even works with siblings."

"It's always been that way."

Skloosh. I hush and I listen. Buckets are filled, baskets are emptied and more are brought in to replace them.

Thank you and you. PS- I hate tomatoes

Every year my Grandfather (who is 80 at the time of writing) plants a million and a half tomato plants, actually, it is closer to twenty, but when the tomatoes are ripe, it seems like it should be a million and a half. So, every summer my mom and I end up taking home like ten hundred pounds of tomatoes; needless to say more than we can eat at one time. What do you do with ten pounds of tomatoes without ending up with too much spaghetti sauce? Why can them of course. I don’t know when we started doing this, I must have been too young to remember, but every year the tradition is the same, either we can them; or we end up with a billion quarts of spaghetti sauce =).

The way we can them is fairly simple, but it always seems to take a long time. What we do is first peel the tomatoes by blanching them in hot water until their skin cracks, pull them out, and stick then stick the done ones into the roaster (our glazed metal pan that people usually cook turkeys in. It is just that this is a deep enough and big enough pan to hold all the tomatoes). Usually, the way that my mom and I do the canning, is that my mom blanches the tomatoes while I skin them and quarter them, while my mom is waiting for the water to boil, etc, she will come over to the table and help me. This way we can get the most amount of tomatoes cooked, peeled, and quartered before they cool. The only problem is that they don’t have time to cool, which means that not only are your hands wrinkled from the juice, but they are also burnt because it is hot juice. You get use to the blistering heat of the tomatoes eventually.

Once we get all of the tomatoes peeled and quartered, we end up with a pot full of tomato goop. We take this and boil it, boiling it helps kill any of the germs that are in it. Once the tomato goop comes to a good boil, we use ladles and funnels to get it into jars. We have this really cool funnel especially for putting tomatoes into cans, it is really nifty, it is normal funnel shaped, but the end doesn’t come to a point. It is about pop can sized, but a little smaller so that it fits inside the mouth of a can, but is wide enough to allow chunks of tomato to go through. This is usually the section that I don’t have to help with, since in the past it has been so late that I would have to go to bed, and since this is easily a one person job, my mom would let me go to bed without too much fuss. Once the tomatoes are into jars and sealed with lids and rings, my mom sticks as many jars as possible into our pressure cooker/canner. Each canner comes with specific directions on how long and on what pressure you should can a specific fruit or vegetable. But, I remember my mom telling me stories about her grandmother canning, and how she use to tell my mom to be careful; since if you don’t have the pressure set right, the canner can explode. I also remember sitting and watching our huge stockpot sized pressure cooker/canner with it's little pressure releaser top; the pressure releaser is this little round piece of metal that has thee holes in it, once for each pound of pressure setting. Say the vegetable you are cooking calls for ten pounds of pressure, then you would take the pressure releaser and stick it on the steam release on the lid on the hole that was marked 10. This way the pressure cooker/canner didn’t get too much pressure and explode. But, all this said, I would sit and just watch the lid, waiting for the cooker to start boiling, since the steam being released would make the pressure releaser dance like a Mexican jumping bean. I found it very amusing as a child.

The process is long and sticky, but this is where it starts to get better. When the canner has cooked for long enough, and it is time to take out the glass quart jars, you have to do so with the special can sized tongs or hot pads, because the glass is so hot. Then, we spread dish towels on the table, and let the jars cool there. We put down towels to soak up the water that the jars drip because of the canner. Then, when all the cans come out, you can go to bed; the cans need a long time to cool. By morning most of the ones that haven't sealed have popped by now, and you can put away the ones that haven't. The ones that haven’t sealed will have to go into the fridge and get used soon because you cannot reseal them.

All of this work said and done, you have jars of tomato that you can use all winter long. They make great soup stock, and you can use them in almost anything that calls for a can of tomatoes. =)

Also, recently, my mom has started adding garlic, green pepper, and onion to our tomato mix, since almost every recipe calls for these four items together. She says it saves her time in the long run.

On another note, you can also use this canning technique for lots of other things. Mom and I have actually bought chicken in bulk, and canned boneless chunks of chicken. That was a few years ago, and kind of a gross, sticky, stinky process; I would only recommend it to die-hard canners, and or people who use a lot of chicken. Though, it makes very very quick homemade chicken soup, since you don't have to boil and de-bone the chicken before you start, just add a can of chicken, a can of water (not literally a can of water, but a can full of water), and noodles, and vegetables and boil. It is great for when people are sick. You can give them a glass jar of chicken noodle soup. =) Good luck, and can something sometime.

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