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The Taste of the Summer
My family and I have a special talent. We can put the flavors and memories of the summer in quart and pint-sized jars. From tomatoes to peaches, to pickles and beets, we are able to preserve these foods and memories. We can open the containers in the winter and share not only the foods of summer, but share the life of summer.
Canning is somewhat of a new tradition for me. For two summers now I’ve traveled to a tiny town called Stockton, to put summer warmth in 46 quart-sized jars. In order to preserve the flavors properly, we use earth-grown tomatoes only. The hot-house-grown tomatoes sold at grocery stores don’t capture life properly. We take a few back roads after entering the town of Stockton, and arrive at Aunt Dorothy’s house. When you first see the house, it reminds you of a time when kids were outside all day, with adults sitting on the porch talking all through the evening. Her porch is big and suitable for folks to sit on; with big green carpet that screams 1965. The white steps and railings lead to a home that is host to our new canning day tradition.
When we arrive, Dad and I open up the trunk and unload the car, carrying boxes of tomatoes and food for lunch. I enter and I’m greeted not with the customary bland kiss, but with warm, heartfelt hugs and Aunt Dot’s welcome phrase of “Good to see you, sweetie.” Her embraces are long and firm, and whenever you find yourself hugged by her, you know that your presence is truly appreciated. Grandpa’s hugs are usually shorter with a “Hi, how are ya?’’ thrown in.
Both of these hugs differ largely from my grandma’s embraces. Hers are much softer, with a welcome phrase of “Hi, sweetie.”
After the greetings, people putter about to gather pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards to begin the task of putting earth in a jar. Tomatoes are dumped in the sink to float in water while they wait to be selected, inspected, accepted or rejected, then to be peeled. Peeling a tomato is an art. First, insert the knife in the skin and cut and remove this skin so as not to preserve it, (for this is malpractice of canning), and quarter the newly peeled tomato on a cutting board and place it and its juices in the bucket. This process is repeated with the next 100 tomatoes, until they are in a large cauldron simmering and boiling, preparing to be preserved.
While the tomatoes boil and broil, lunch is served. Aunt Dot and a few others eat in the kitchen, while she keeps a watchful eye on the black cauldron, and my sister, my grandparents and I eat in the dining room. With this family there are no kid’s tables, because there aren’t that many kids. We dine on good food like baked beans with bacon, slow-cooked ham, chips and homemade salsa along with homemade guacamole. There have previously been foods like ham and bean soup, freshly stewed by Aunt Dot, with upside-down black raspberry cake for desert made by Grandma. It’s all these foods that make up our canning day feast, complete with a cup of tomato juice afterwards, always handed to you with a kindly smile. Not only can you put summer in a jar, but you can put it in a mug too.
Eventually the tomatoes are boiled enough so that they’re ready to be ladled into the jars. Not only do the tomatoes have to boiled, but the seals and jars do as well. We began the process of removing a freshly boiled jar from the bubbling pot, and inserted our funnel to get the tomatoes in the jar. You scoop a cup full of boiled tomato, pour it in the funnel and PLOP! in the jar it goes. Once the jar is full, remove a hot seal and lid ring from the boiling pot and set them on top of the jar and seal it. Repeat with 50 more jars until you’ve emptied your cauldron and voila! You have stacks of tomato jars on your counter that can be used to make ghoulash, soup, and pasta sauce. A fun way to measure your success is to count your jars in order to see how your canning day turned out. My sister and I remember the last count as 46 quart-sized jars and 16 pint-sized ones.
We commence our clean-up after the canning is over. While we wipe tomato stains off the workspace and rinse pots and pans and funnels and mugs, we’re treated to a chorus of “pip-pops” which is the sound each jar emits when the seal has taken place. For the next few hours my family’s laughter and conversation is accompanied by these “pip-pops”.
“Grandma Ferne is smiling right now. She’d be so proud of you girls,” my grandma says.
“PIP-POP!” a jar says.
“Mom loved to can. Every summer we’d be pulled into help,” Aunt Dot responds.
“POP!” another jar goes.
Grandma says, “I was never much of a canner though. I have a lot of fun watching you girls carry on the tradition.”
It’s funny. Even though I never met Grandma Ferne, I feel like I know her. Aunt Dot and Grandma talk about her and her personality, what she’d think of this or that, and the things she loved, so much that I feel quite familiar with her, almost like I know her. From what I’ve learned about her over the years, I would’ve liked to have met her.
When it’s time to depart Stockton for home, we take fifteen minutes at least, to say goodbye. My family also has to load our jars and utensils we brought for canning. Each household gets 20 jars, as my grandma doesn’t like tomatoes (or other vegetables for that matter). There’s many a long hug and phrases like “We should get together more often.” It’s these phrases that I resent. Only too often they’re said, but it never changes. These are the family members I hold closest to my heart and yet I rarely see them. I only visit Aunt Dot once a year, twice if I’m lucky. Grandma I see only for a couple birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The best visits are days like canning day where there’s no holiday that “forces” or “requires” a visit. We’re just getting together because we are family. They’re not here forever, and it’s them that I wish I could hear more stories from and more “Good to see ya, sweetie,” or “Hi, how are ya?” In all these simple phrases there’s an underlying phrase that goes, “I love you.”
At the end of the day it’s not about the tomatoes, the peaches, the pickles, or the beets. It’s about the family. About what they teach me and what I will teach my family in the future. Eventually, the tomatoes will be gone, but the memories will stay. After every jar is empty, a new one can be filled again with new tomatoes and new flavors of the summer that can be shared in the winters and any other time of year. Each time you open up a tomato jar, you open up that day of canning and its memories. Not only do you get those memories, but you get the all the memories of canning days before and thoughts of canning days to come. It’s these thoughts and memories that I want to share with my grandchildren, and teach them the lesson of how to put life in a jar.