August 14, 2009
Tomato Time, Memphis, TN
There is something to be said for keeping traditions alive, even when times are tough. For example, the East Nashville Tomato Art Fest went off without a hitch and was the most well-attended in their 6 year history, despite the beastly temperatures on August 8th.
And, although it's mid August and we should be deep into tomatoes by now, many (including mine except for a few early ones) are languishing on the vine, refusing to ripen. Our farmer who supplies our CSA says he lost over 600 tomato plants this year due to a 'blight' - the same one perhaps that seems to have affected the crops all over the Northeast. One of the perils of organic farming is that refusing to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers can also mean losing an entire crop.
But all of this was not enough to stop Connie Adams of Memphis, TN. My good friend Galloway's mother, Connie was one of the first people I met when I arrived in the South four years ago, on my move from Colorado to Nashville. She welcomed me into her home and what a home it was. It was August then too and her kitchen was filled with women of all ages, suited up in aprons and deep into Tomato Time, the traditional canning party that takes place at Connie's every year at this time. It's been going on for more than 20 years now and every August family members--children, nieces, grandmothers, aunts and cousins-- and friends old and new get together to put up hundreds of jars of tomatoes over four days in what has to be one of the best food traditions in the South.
After that first time I told myself I had to come back and learn from these women. So this year, when Connie invited me to come, I didn't hesitate to accept her invitation. Now that food and its preparation is becoming more and more an integral part of my life, I was more excited than ever to learn how to can tomatoes from these professionals.
And what I learned was valuable in more ways than one. I learned that you can't stuff the jars too tight or they may break in the boiling water. I learned that having the proper equipment is very important. And I learned that the more hands you have, the more fun-- and efficient-- the work is. Canning is definitely not a one or two person job.
I remember stories about my great Aunt Kate and Uncle Les who canned everything in their basement in Colorado, just the two of them. Every year for Christmas they'd bring my mom beautiful jars of tomatoes, peaches, pears, pickles and anything else they had that year. While I knew that my family was always delighted to empty out their contents, I never understood the amount of work that went into those jars until now.
We worked hard over those days, all the while talking --about books, about friendships, about family and kids. Mostly I listened, just soaking up the history that was in that room, happy to be cutting, peeling, stuffing or boiling tomatoes in the company of others--of all ages--who were all so happy to be there.
And orchestrating it all from her perch at the stove, running circles around us and making extra trips to the farmer's market each day for fresh tomatoes, checking each and every jar for air bubbles and making us re-do them if she found them, was Connie. She is the master of the ceremony, the Tomato Queen of Memphis.
(this is Connie here making salsa for us after the first long day of work...the lady never stops, which is why this is the only photo I managed to get of her.)
And now, looking at the fruits of our labor, I understand why she does it: almost 400 jars of tomatoes in 4 days, each one more perfect than the next, a lasting memory of time spent together in the kitchen. What better kind of tradition is there?