Tomato Time!

Every couple of years my wife's family gets together in the sweltering heat to make the new batch of tomato sauce. This time-honored tradition is announced a few days prior to the event with the now familiar cry of "hey! It's-a time to make-a 'da sauce-a!" What this means is that, for one sweat-filled weekend the Vendomes and Fuschettos and Lanzettas and one German come together to make enough sauce to last another 2-3 years (the last time we did this was in 2004). For this round I managed to sneak a camera into the house and document the process for posterity.

The process of gathering the materials starts a few days before. Basil is gathered from the house upstate. Empty jars are collected from everyone's house - dozens of jars are gathered. We've been known to use old iced tea bottles, mayonnaise...anything with a good seal can hold sauce. My mother-in-law supplements her own home-grown tomatoes with about 15 cases of additional tomatoes from the local market. Apparently the more traditional bushels are no longer purchasable due to the lack of available baskets, so modern cardboard cases are settled for (which we will put into baskets we have stolen from local markets, thus completing a vicious circle - it's things like this that make time travel a priority).

This makes for a lot of tomatoes.

Once everything is collected we move into Phase I: the cleaning and sorting of the tomatoes. This was my function last year, and is usually the province of the men, since it involves sitting around big steel tubs of water washing tomatoes with beer. Please note that at no time (unless I'm sloppy or drunk) does the beer actually come into contact with the tomatoes. This year is no different, except that by the time we arrive with Baby in tow, most of the washing has already taken place, so we finish up in the basement sink. As the tomatoes are washed rotten parts are carved out, then re-rinsed and sorted into empty cases for cooking later.

Ah, the Italian basement. If you've never had the experience of working or eating in a basement with a traditional Italian family, you're missing out on something special. It's small, over 115 degrees with the various burners and ovens on, the ceiling's only about 6 inches above your head (if your a "Giant German," as I am sometimes called), and it's chock full of loud, happy Italians, either working or walking around making sure that everyone's eating and drinking as they work. One minute my wife was washing tomatoes next to me, the next she was twirling around the basement with an enormous plate of sausage, cheese, bread, roasted peppers, and deli meats. Her grandmother was close behind with glasses of Pellegrino for everyone. There's gossip and jokes, food and drink, and the smell of tomatoes and basil and sweat and love in every pore of your skin. It's amazing, and if it sounds a little like a movie cliché, well then you may be right but it doesn't diminish the sentiment, does it?

As we wash and carve and sort, the tomatoes go into the enormous pots to be boiled. To do this we use propane burners and huge, wooden sticks to stir. When they've cooked enough it's time to enter into Phase II, the operating of "The Machine." For years this was only done by the heads of the household. I could only look with wonder and envy from my shoddy, dark corner where I would busy myself putting basil into empty jars while all the cool stuff was taking place at "The Machine."

Here my wife's father and brother operate "the Machine," which basically skins the boiled tomatoes and pours out the uncooked sauce into pots. The skin of the tomatoes are put through "The Machine" a second time to squeeze out any juicy goodness we might have missed the first time around. Running your hands through the leftover skins is both disgusting and strangely pleasant, although that might just be me. My wife assures me it's disgusting, at least the way I was handling it with soft caresses and whispers of eternal fidelity.

Once all the juice is collected it's put into the large pots again to boil again before finally being "canned" which I always found to be a strange term since we don't use cans - we use jars. Quick note when "canning" your tomatoes - the jars should be in hot water - otherwise they can shatter when adding in the sauce.

Below find my massive army of jars awaiting tomato-goodness! They will destroy you with their fresh basil and their glassy stare!

In the end you're filthy, the tomato splatters transforming you into am extra from a 1970's giallo movie, and you find yourself wearing ridiculous things to keep the sweat from running into your eyes. Or at least I did. But when it's all over you get more than enough sauce to keep you rolling in pasta for another 3 years. You get a family event that equals holidays and vacations, and sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing you were part of something that tastes so damn good. And the weirdest thing of all about the whole process?

At the end of the day we didn't even have any sauce with dinner. We just barbecued some burgers and hot dogs.