Epic Tomato Put It Up Day

How long will thirty-two jars last?

This was the summer I learned to put up. Canning summer’s harvest, or “putting up,” is a time-honoured tradition that I have absolutely no personal history with. I reached the tipping point with it this year likely due to a growing obsession with eating whole, local, and organic food. Canning feels like a natural extension of a food philosophy that prioritizes knowing what I’m eating, where it comes from, and how it is prepared. It also satisfies a growing need to feel deeply connected to land and place, and to know that we won’t starve when the earthquake hits. (Alarmist? Not really, more like “secure-ist” in the sense of food security.) But more than anything, I just want to make tomato sauce from scratch and eat it on pasta in January.

With this mindset, and a love of farm-fresh tomatoes, I embarked on the Epic Tomato Put It Up Day. “Epic” was a descriptor applied on Monday after the ordeal was over, for reasons that will soon become clear. Caution: think twice before trying this at home.

Twenty-five pounds of organic roma tomatoes.

9:15–10:30am

Sunday dawned rainy and cool, tarps pooling overhead at the vendor stalls of the farmers’ market where I would buy supplies for the day’s canning projects. Twenty-five pounds of tomatoes: check. Sixteen ears of corn: check. Twelve apples, nine large onions, six peaches, the list went on and my arms nearly failed me. Back at the ranch, the counter overflowed with gorgeous fruits and veggies at their peak, and I had some serious work ahead.

10:30am–12:30pm

There’s a rhythm to preparing large amounts of any one type of food. Reminiscent of an assembly line of one, the repetition becomes something of a meditation. “Blanch, peel, core…blanch, peel, core,” was my new tomato mantra.

The beginning of three recipes from one pot—barbeque sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and chutney.

12:30–1:30pm

The first canning project was an oh-so-efficient three-in-one recipe. Starting with the tomatoes, apples, onions, vinegar and spices, the batch will simmer for about two hours to reduce to a thick, savory barbeque sauce. This would be the first of three products to emerge from the pot. Simmer simmer.

1:30–3:30pm

A proud multi-tasking moment: simmering pot; blanching and peeling peaches, boiling them down with sugar, garlic, and Tabasco; shucking and cooking corn; tomato mantra redux; running jars through the dishwasher; setting the canner to boil. Mastered the four-burner shuffle. I also took a moment to eat lunch (silly me, wasting time like that).

3:30–4:00pm

Barbeque sauce (just less than half the amount in the pot) ladled into piping hot jars, processed and left to cool on the counter.

4:00–5:00pm

Peaches in thick, glossy syrup added to the pot, transforming the formerly-known-as barbeque sauce into sweet and sour sauce. Into jars, into the canner, onto the counter.

5:00–5:30pm

Raisins join the last dregs of the sweet and sour sauce to form chutney. Canned. Three sauces from one pot—impressive.

5:30–6:45pm

Onto the next project! Corn kernels bounce off the cutting board into all corners of the counter, blocked by my body from diving suicidal for the floor. More chopping produces onion, more tomato, and cilantro, combined with vinegar and spice in the pot and brought to a boil. A trip through the canner and corn salsa appeared on the counter beside the three sauces.

Cooking down tomatoes into luscious pasta sauce. You could smell it from the sidewalk.

6:45–8:00pm

It was time to begin crafting the main attraction, the pasta sauce, and that meant—you guessed it—more tomato mantra. (Did I say “meditation” earlier? I may have meant marathon.) The seduction of homemade sauce is the incredible taste that comes from vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to intensify the flavour, a process that takes three hours at least. That’s right, three hours with an 8:00pm start time. Um, no problem. The pasta sauce was now on the stove.

8:00–8:45pm

Thank goodness for pizza leftovers. Fortified with dinner and a short sit-down, I gamely considered my options. I could rest for a bit and even clean up the kitchen before the sauce was ready, or I could can the remaining four pounds of roma tomatoes languishing in the bottom of the large cardboard flat. No time like the present, I thought, secretly gleeful to produce yet another batch of foodstuff this day. I’d take it easy tomorrow.

Stewed tomatoes. There's time, right?

8:45–10:30pm

Once more with the tomato mantra masochism, then a rough chop of the tomatoes and into the jars, processing for forty minutes. With time enough to sit for a spell, I thought perhaps a bitty perusal of my other canning recipe book—the one that is decades newer—would be fun. Well, it seems safety concerns have really elevated in the intervening years, and processing time for raw packed tomatoes has doubled. Mine is not to question, though I am fully licensed to groan loudly and cast drooping eyes at the clock.

10:30–11:15pm

Another forty-five minutes then. Boil, boil, toil and trouble. I collapsed on the couch.

11:15–11:45pm

I lifted the lid of the canner after eighty-five minutes of total processing time to find the water level even with the tops of the jars. This is a bad thing. Every book I’ve read wants two inches of water above the jars during the entire processing time. The spectre of botulism took shape over my left shoulder, so I dutifully boiled the kettle, topped up the canner with boiling water, and processed for another twenty minutes.

Beautiful sauce, bad decisions.

11:45pm–1:00am

It happened around the witching hour. I was taking out the sterilized jars from the canner, ready to receive the glorious (and now very thick) pasta sauce when I dropped one. It hit its fellow on the rim and clattered back into the roiling boil. Examining the assaulted jar revealed a small missing shard and a rough edge.

In retrospect, this is where I should have called it quits for the night. But I was tired, so tired, and made what I thought was a reasonable decision at the time. I removed the chipped jar, swirled the others around in the water to rinse them and pulled them out of the canner in an inverted position. I peered into each one, looking and not finding any glass shards. I filled them, put the lids on (perhaps a bit tighter than usual), and processed them in the bath.

I dreamed that night of tomatoes, boiling water, and glass. I woke tormented by thoughts of internal bleeding and hospitalization. I dumped out the sauce.

Other people—perhaps saner—would space these projects over several days, and possibly over a couple of weeks. I am not such a person. I would try pasta sauce again next Sunday. Of course I’d need a recipe to do while waiting for the sauce to boil down. And since I’d have tomatoes left over, maybe also a tomato jam, and…

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