I am a sucker for culinary traditions. Always have been. Always will be. I am quite certain that it comes from spending so much time with my maternal grandparents who did everything because of one tradition or another. For their generation, I often felt that those experiences or processes were somewhat mechanical and done because “that’s what you do”. I’m not convinced that a lot of thought went into why, or even if they wanted to can tomatoes/make charcuterie/bake holiday cookies or whatever the case may be. My grandmother’s grandmother did it, so did her mom and that’s why she did.
For my generation, things have changed. Many say that young people have broken away from traditional practices and there is definitely truth to that. Many Gen Xers and Gen Yers have moved far from their families thereby making it hard to partake in annual culinary gatherings. Sometimes, their lives are consumed with other things and they find it hard to make the time to help grandma with these special traditions. But, as the back to the Earth-farm to table- old fashioned way of doing things philosophies strengthen, it is becoming clear that the current cool, hip way of creating artisan products is how our ancestors did it all along. It just wasn’t cool and hip back in their day.
The Lio Family annual tomato canning is a case in point. The Lio’s would be my brother in laws’ family and knowing that Dave and I would get a kick out of helping with “the tomatoes” , they invited us to join in the messy fun. Though I consider my family thoroughly old school Italian, this is not a tradition that has stood the test of time for them. Much to my dismay, home jarred tomatoes made way for the canned version several decades ago. Knowing it was once part of my family’s culinary history made it that much more exciting for me. Perhaps, that Sunday afternoon would be the starting point for its’ reintroduction?
My sister Nicole gave me ample warning about the work involved. Despite my preparedness, I was still in awe of how much work the family had been doing for weeks before. Dominick’s dad (Senior) constructed a makeshift kitchen (replete with a sink) on Nicole and Dominick’s patio. He then lugged all sorts of equipment over, set it up and then somehow procured eighteenbushels of plum tomatoes.Think mountains. No part of the process had become mechanized so this was handmade at its’ best. The actual canning part began on Friday and continued through Sunday evening. To say this was a small production would be an understatement. Thankfully, after many years of doing this, an efficient system was in place. There were stations set up with cousins/aunts/uncles at each, all with tomato stained hands, working away on their designated task. There was a congenial nature in the air but definitely mixed with a sense of purpose. This, my friends, was a well-oiled machine.
Canning was well under way by the time Dave and I got in on the action so we dove in. I started at the tomato cleaning station while Dave, who suddenly transformed into an old school paisano (minus the black socks and sandals, thankfully) went for the gusto by working the grinding machine. The process was multi step, culminating with funneling molten hot tomato sauce into prepared Mason jars. By the time all was said and done, it appeared as though there had been a tomato massacre with seeds and skins and tomato parts everywhere. Surfaces were wiped clean to allow room to proudly display the dozens of jars of sauce. The crimson soldiers neatly lined up on the makeshift kitchen counter provided the weary souls with a sense of deep satisfaction. Not only would the sauce smother hot pasta and fill bellies over the course of the coming year, but I think there was a sense that the upholding of this tradition made the many generations of departed Lio’s very proud.
It was such a treat to be a part of the experience. I still cannot decide if the highlight was the first forkful of the pasta dinner prepared with our fresh sauce or the realization that a snapshot of the day could have just as easily included the faces of our ancestors in place of ours. Evidence that some things never change.