Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bottling Summer

I had a new experience this weekend, one that until recently I never would have imagined myself doing, much less enjoying. My husband and I converted 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes into tomato sauce and then bottled the sauce. We are as proud as little children who have learned a new trick. The eight pints of tomato sauce still sit in two neat rows on the kitchen counter where we can admire them.

The seed of an idea for this project came when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few weeks ago. She makes living off the harvest of her garden for a year seem almost fun. The book includes a recipe for homemade tomato sauce, homey descriptions of August afternoons spent socializing with friends while putting up tomatoes, and even reflections by her daughter on how processing tomatoes results in a kind of mindfulness, where nothing else exists except for attending to stirring the sauce.

The opportunity came when I saw 20-pound boxes of ripe tomatoes for sale for $20 at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. My husband bought a 3-gallon pot and glass Ball jars and we were ready to go. I will admit I was a little apprehensive about the work involved in bottling. I come from a line of women who viewed working in the kitchen as drudgery and had limited imaginations when it came to food. The comment about cooking I remember most often hearing from my mother was “slaving in the kitchen.”

But playing with the tomatoes was fun from beginning to end. They were beautiful to look at, red and firm, about the size of baseballs. We dipped them in hot water for 45 seconds to loosen the skins, then peeled them and seeded them. I felt like a little kid during this part of the process—there was something so satisfyingly tactile about peeling and then squeezing the tomatoes. We then pureed them, stirred together seasonings (following Barbara Kingsolver’s no-longer-secret family recipe), and cooked the sauce.

I had to stay near the kitchen during the three hours the sauce was simmering, to stir it and make sure it didn’t burn. It was a pleasure—an excuse to sit reading Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist, one of the better and funnier novels I have read in awhile, getting up from time to time to stir the sauce that smelled heavenly.

The Egyptologist, amidst its satire, is provoking in its reflections on immortality. It occurred to me that our project was in its own way an effort to cheat time. We took a product of summer--ripe tomatoes that would have been destined for compost if not eaten within a couple of days--and preserved them to pour over winter pasta or chicken parmigiana. This seems like a small miracle to a woman who has spent her life in suburbs and urban areas, dining out and making meals using factory-made sauces. We bottled summer.