Canning Tomatoes

Catherine Grossman

I picked the tomatoes on Saturday and now it was early Tuesday morning. I filled the canning pot with water and turned the flame up high. The Joy of Cooking said not to set the timer until the water reached a rolling boil; it could take nearly an hour for this much water to get to that point. My mother never canned - all I knew was what I read in a book. Without the benefit of experience, the text set me on edge with the dangers involved. The jars and lids had to be sterilized. Care must be taken to avoid spoilage, the book warned, especially in the case of nonacid foods, to prevent the development the deadly a germ that caused Botulism. Just one ounce could kill 100 million people. Its spores could resist 212 degrees; they could be present even with no odor or change in color. Tomatoes were acidic and did not support these bacteria, I read. I didn't have to worry, but somehow the world did not seem safe. Just how unsafe had not yet been impressed on me.

Was the radio already on? Did I walk across the kitchen floor and flick the switch? I don't remember. It couldn't have been on because as soon as I turned on the radio, I heard it and believed it. Oh my God. My shoes felt weighted to the old oak floor; my breathing was shallow, my heart raced. Suddenly the schools my children were in were too far away. I stared out the window at the side yard that in the spring would be full of crocuses, daffodils, and blue bells, and in the fall, would again strain under the weight of tomatoes. The raspy, panicked words of radio announcers repeated what little they knew over and over again. I felt like I was watching a movie where a close up shot of a woman who walked alone through the darkened halls of her house concealed what was happening in other rooms. Only the director knew what would happen next. In this case, nobody knew. Later, Thomas Friedman would call it World War III, Norman Mineta would say, No more curbside check-in, President Bush would threaten, Wanted Dead or Alive. My five-year-old daughter would ask if it was an accident.

I stared at the side yard in its September bareness, in its going-to-be-spring fullness. I imagined soldiers walking through it, not caring where their dusty boots fell, on top of ripe tomatoes that split and spilled their red juices and yellow seeds onto the ready earth.

It must have been after 9:40 because I heard reports about the Pentagon; also something about a plane in Pennsylvania. That was going too far. That would be too much planning, organization, and coordination. I resisted my impulse to bring my family home. Instead I called a friend. "Are you listening to the news?" Her morning was not going well. Her husband had forgotten to sign their son up for a Boy Scout trip and now it looked like he might be left out. I used my tongue to push the headlines through my teeth. "OK, bye." That was all we needed. There was nothing else to say.

The half-bushel of tomatoes sat on the kitchen counter along with the strong glass canning jars that were lined up - four rows of six. Narrow mouthed and wide mouthed jars. I read about the difference. I was making sauce - either one would do. My friend refused to can tomatoes - too much work, too inexpensive in the stores. But I liked the fresh taste. I liked the reminder of the fullness of late summer in the middle of winter.

The canning pot was overpowering the small stove. Two gas burners raged under the large, dark, enamel cauldron when I called the reference desk at the library. Where exactly is the World Trade Center? And where is that in relationship to 42nd street and 7th avenue, where my nearly 80-year-old parents were staying during their long planned trip to the Big City? "Reference Desk, may I help you?" She left me on hold too long. I hung up and found my Rand McNally Road Atlas. At the top of the page - New York City and Vicinity. A small red square: the World Trade Center, a Point of Interest; 42nd Street a full knuckle north. At first, a full knuckle seemed far away, but when I compared it to the pages that lay between that Point of Interest and Indiana, I wondered if I would see them again.

The phone line to their hotel was busy the first time I tried and busy again a few seconds later and then later again. I keep pushing the buttons as if I were Doing Something because there seemed to be nothing, nothing at all to be done except can the tomatoes and push the buttons and not bring everyone home.

The fruit did not have to be blanched, but I decided to blanch the tomatoes so that I would not have to pick tough rolls of tomato skin out of my spaghetti sauce in January. After three minutes in boiling water, I lifted the first patch of nine fruits from their fiery bath, their tender, thin skins split from the heat, and I immersed them in cold water until they could be touched. The papery skin slid off like the skin of the victims of Hiroshima and I tossed the exposed dripping fruit into a small pot. All the while I kept thinking: Scalp fruit. Wash hands. Punch buttons.

Tomatoes begin as seeds. A company cultivates the seeds; a company packages and distributes them; people plant them, or machines. The plants are tended; the fruit is picked, packed, and taken to market. The kitchen is the end of the line. A long line of intention, production, yield. If I let these fruits rot, look at all the people who would be let down.

The small pot was full of oozing tomatoes. I set them to simmer, but the basket on the counter was only half empty. I slid more fruit into the blanching caldron. Scalp Fruit. Wash hands. Push buttons.

At noon my Dad called from his New York hotel room. "We are fine, just fine. How are you?" How am I? he wanted to know. I couldn't begin to explain how I was to a World War II veteran with a Purple Heart who never admitted to adversity. His presence on the phone tamped down my fears.

"I am so glad to hear your voice. Listen Dad, the bridges are closed; the airports are closed; 35,000 domestic flights are grounded. Dad, nobody knows what could happen next. Just don't try to get the next flight out of there, OK?"

"I have taken care of everything. We are glued to the TV. We aren't going anywhere. I am looking out my window right now and it is a little quiet, but there are a few people walking around.

I hung up the phone and knew that if the FAA let even one domestic flight out of the city, he would be on it. He wouldn't sit in a hotel room. He too, had to Do Something.

I had forgotten about the tomatoes in the blanching water. It had
been more than three minutes and they had begun to break down. Soft
shreds of red fruit were tossed about in the raging, boiling water
that had turned the color of blood.

© Catherine Grossman

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