Reminiscing about 'Tomato Making Day'

Tomato Making Day was always special for Rita DeMontis. (Fotolia)

Tomato Making Day was always special for Rita DeMontis. (Fotolia)

Rita DeMontis, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

 

I am a child of Sardinian immigrants, in fact I'm a child immigrant, having arrived on Canada's shores at the tender age of two and a half with my mother and two older brothers. My father had left our home in France a year earlier to set up shop in Toronto, so to speak, and, after a particularly ghastly sea voyage our little family arrived intact, via Halifax's famed Pier 21, a little worse for wear, but ready for our Canadian adventure.

Growing up in such an ethnic household meant seasons marked by food rituals - winters meant sausage season and clear broth soups, spring meant fresh vegetables, lamb and summers were wrapped around the traditional Italian garden.

My mother's flower garden brimmed with multi-hued roses, lilac bushes and lily-of-the valley, and she was always torn between her beloved flowers and her bounty of a vegetable patch - a place where one reached for fresh sustenance buried into the rich earth: string beans, zucchini, onions, cucumbers, rhubarb, eggplant, basil - and tomatoes.

Lots and lots of tomatoes.


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Different types of course - the fat, sassy beefsteaks, sleek romas, and the baby tomatoes, all balls of bright sweetness perfect on their own or blended into salads.

My mother kept a particularly careful watch on the romas - those babies were being groomed for that end-of-summer rite known as Making The Tomatoes - canning. This is an ageless ritual passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter and then some. I've noticed stories already brimming with canning items and bushels of fresh tomatoes are ready to go.

In my mother's garden, if there weren't enough tomatoes - and there never were - my parents would dutifully join other like-minded neighbhours at the local Italian grocery store and haggle for a couple of bushels to add to their stash.

To be honest, I loathed "tomato making" day - it all meant we had to get up super-early, spend hours scouring and boiling preserving jars and Italian "ginga-rella" bottles that were probably from the First World War, and were used and reused throughout the seasons, and generally be on our best behaviour as our parents worked the complicated system of preserving the harvest. After all, it had to sustain us through the harsh winters when a bottle of preserved tomatoes fed a family.

Each tomato had to be scrutinized before being pulverized in this giant hand-cranked machine, and everyone was pressed into service - including the kids. If we didn't help in the garden, there was always a room to be dusted and cleaned.

 

I hated the smell and sting of crushed tomatoes on my skin. But I loved the end of the day, when the prepared bottles and jars were placed in a large, industrial-size drum, filled with old rags and water, a large fire merrily bringing the water to a boil for a good while before being extinguished and allowed to cool throughout the ever-cooling night. A large towel always covered the precious cargo.

And I loved how a couple of the pounds of the best of the tomatoes were always set aside for dinner. My mother would drop them into boiling water and then plunge them into cold water in order to peel the skin quickly. She then churned them with a hand press to separate the pulp from the seeds. A large sauce pot was set on the gas stove burner, ready to spring into action, welcoming a generous dollop of olive oil, a sweet onion, quartered, and several large basil leaves. The pureed tomatoes were added at just the right moment, when the oil and condiments heated through and the whole thing was simmered with a dash of salt and a sprinkle of pepper.

At just the right moment, my mother would crack a good dozen fresh eggs into the mix, gently coddling them in the sauce, so that they poached into smooth, buttery perfection. The idea was to keep the yolk a bit runny - and when it's golden goodness spilled into the savoury tomato sauce the taste was pure heaven.

We hungrily sopped up the mixture with big chunks of crusty bread, excitedly chatting about our tomato adventures and using one last piece to clean the plate.

That's how we finished off Making the Tomatoes day, a most perfect day, in my mother's Italian kitchen.


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