Last week, my Nana announced she would no longer be canning tomatoes from her garden. It took me a minute, but I quickly realized that this would be the first time in my 40 years that I would not have canned tomatoes at my year-round disposal. Gasp! Nana's tomatoes are my secret weapon in the kitchen. I pull them out when I make my cinnamon-scented osso buco, my quick and healthy Autumn Soup, and my slow-stewed pink barbecue beans with pumpkin. They also make my Chesapeake Muddled Mary's kick some cocktail ass.
I also realized that I had never learned how to can tomatoes myself. How could I of all people not know how to do this? So, I quickly told Nana to pick a date, and I would come to the farm so she could teach me. The idea excited me…and made me a little nervous. This was a life moment…a rite of passage, and I wanted to be on my culinary game.
When I arrived at Nana's the next week, she had a big cardboard box filled with large, summer ripened Big Boys. They were gorgeous. She also had the canning accoutrements laid out perfectly over the formica counters ready to go: the 32 ounce Ball jars, which I would guess have been in the family for 20 or more years, and their matching sealable lids; my great-grandmother's chipped, white enamel dishpan that's probably seen 50 years worth of tomato and other vegetable peels; Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, Nana's must-have; two not-so-sharp peeling knives; and a copper-bottomed steel pot large enough for boiling seven or so jars.
Before we started, Nana pulled a book from her cupboard. I had never seen it before. It was titled the Freezing & Canning Cookbook: Prize Recipes from the Farms of America Food Editors of Farm Journal. The book was obviously quite old and splattered and stained from year's of use. As she cracked it open with her gentle, work-worn hands, my jaw dropped. Out fell decades' worth of notes painstakingly recording everything Nana has ever canned. The notes went something like this: October 1, 1975 - 26 quarts tomatoes, 48 quarts tomato juice, 64 jars grape jelly, 11 pints applesauce. I was astonished. To her, it was just a simple journal, but to me, it was years of family history beautifully archived in an heirloom cookbook. My heart burst with joy, and I tingled all over. This day of canning was sacred…a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Soon, water was boiling and tomatoes were ready to be scalded. Just a quick three minutes, Nana instructed. "We want to peel them, not cook," she said. Batch after batch, we loaded my great-grandmother's enamel pan with the juicy, just-cooked fruits, quickly coring and skinning them. Honestly, it was hard not to take a bite, but I was more enthralled by each and every canning step that Nana so patiently shared. I didn't want to miss a tip or trick.
After an hour or so, several jars were lined up along the counter, filled with halved and quartered tomatoes and covered with their sweet juice. Nana grabbed her butter knife and ran it along the inside of each jar, prodding and poking to release any remaining air bubbles. "They'll explode," she cautioned. We added a final teaspoon of Diamond salt to the top, screwed on the wide mouth lids, and in racks of seven, carefully lowered them into the steaming, black porcelain canner. In 20 minutes, our "put-up" masterpieces would be complete.
As I placed the slightly cool tomato jars on the counter, I marveled at their simplistic beauty. They were gorgeous. I was proud of our canning accomplishment, but more grateful for the time with Nana. I took a deep breath and gently sighed as my weary feet sank into the linoleum floor. What a day! Happy and content, I looked up and saw the pottery artwork I made in the fourth grade hanging over the still-warm stove. It was imprinted, "Nana's Kitchen." I grinned at the sign and nodded my head, realizing just how many life lessons I have learned right here in my Nana's kitchen.