Thanks for a saucy bounty

My harvest bounty has already been canned and put away.

It’s become a tradition at the end of August – tomato season. For some of us that means tomato sandwiches and salads. But in laneways and garages throughout the GTA, it signals time for a yearly tradition – making sauce.

Once the purview of first generation Italian immigrants with back gardens filled with ripened tomatoes and life experiences that instilled a sense of frugality, here in Corso Italia it’s become a neighbourhood tradition.  Every year at the end of August, the garage belonging to my neighbours Catherine and Adrian attracts hangers-on in droves to help prepare bushels and bushels of ripe red tomatoes.

And it’s not all Italians. Catherine’s from Nova Scotia. Others have Canadian roots that go back for generations. Another is from Mexico. But we’re all drawn to the idea of preserving some of summer’s local bounty.

By the end of the day, we’ll all know those tomatoes intimately. While we didn’t pick them – a local market brought them in from local farms just north of the city – we do go through them one by one. Like factory workers, we inspect for quality, tossing the bruised ones aside.

Catherine dumps them in a large bucket of water and washes them. Then they’re put in a large metal cauldron set on top of a propane-fuelled burner. Extra ingredients are added. When I try to take a picture, son Nick stops her short.

“Don’t show that, it’s a secret!”

“Everybody’s got their own recipe,” Nick explains without apology.

At night, the laneway is sometimes taken over by drug dealers. Neighbours phone the police and the laneway becomes quiet again. A block or two down, the residents decided to take back their lane. They have a big party once a year, opening the garage doors that usually cut them off from each other and hauling out their barbeques and lawn chairs – making it a place to congregate instead of drive through.

Preparing the sauce has the same effect. The cauldron is bubbling away. The laneway fills with the smell of cooking tomatoes. Neighbours stop by. They eye the propane tank.

“How many bushels you doing?”

“Nine.” Enough to supply four families with homemade sauce for the year.

Once upon a time it was a real family event – mostly because the tomatoes were cranked by hand, and the more hands the better. But Adrian has developed what we call “La Machine.” It’s jerry-rigged from a furnace motor that drives a belt attached to two wheels that turn the grinder that separates the precious juice from the seeds and skin. We feed the cooked tomatoes into it for hours – the mere idea of having to do this by hand makes us grateful for Adrian’s ingenuity.

Preparing the tomatoes to put through La Machine.

Once the tomatoes have been passed through, separating pulp from skin and seeds, the skin mixture is passed through again.  “We can still get plenty out of that,” Adrian says. Waste not, want not. It’s amazing how much juice spills down the spout and into the plastic bucket.

This sparks stories of frugality. Cheryl remembers her mother. “She could have had nothing but a rotten apple and she’d make a pie out of it,” she laughs.

Meanwhile, we set up the sterilized jars on tables throughout the garage. Pail after pail of still-warm sauce is ladled into the jars and the lids put on. The jars are put into barrels filled with water to boil until they seal.

The work is done. Muscles aching, we’re left with a feeling of satisfaction – and rows and rows of shimmering jars – 188 in all – filled with the bright red product of our labour.  Preserving a taste of summer we can savour during the long, cold winter ahead.

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