Tenderness: A Smoky Tomato Anniversary

The smoke of so many fires spreads and drifts slowly across the land, creating wild sunsets, muddy morning sun shafts. In this murky light, we engage again and again with an aching, dawning reckoning, the knowledge that nothing we love will escape the transformation now underway. Inevitable, eventual, eternal. Leaning into this lesson, sealing the windows against the gloom, holding space in our hearts for all that we love and all that we will lose. The sky feels heavy sometimes, but amidst the changes, there is always a seed of possibility. A seed that is cracked open by fire, perhaps. A seed that takes root in ashy ground and spreads roots to anchor the shifting soil. A seed that might yet sprout again, in the hearts of people worn thin by grasping, which might expand to include the larger webs of life that still surround and connect us all, despite the frayed edges. My friend Luke took me to his garden, and pulled the mulch away from the roots of his towering plants. Webs of white roots and tangled mycelium, threaded together, feeding each other, supporting each other, drawing from the same source, transferring nutrients and moisture in an ancient dance that we are just now beginning to understand in this late hour. We talked about big ideas and small; prosocial behavior as an historically accurate evolutionary model for cooperative living, and how good salt and pepper taste on a fresh cucumber. The dogs lay in the sunshine, the children read books and told stories. The earth spun slowly on her axis, round and round the sun. We all just keep on living, aiming for the good life, creating space for the regeneration and rejuvenation that curls, kerneled, in the heart of every loss. Forward, forward, around and around. Before we left the garden, we both pushed the layered mulch back over the roots, wordlessly understanding that the moist, white roots appreciated the care. It is so easy to love this world, so important to keep compassion for all living things alive. In this way we tend and are tended; we are kept tender, a state from which we can most readily absorb both lessons and sustenance, like the vital white roots themselves.

Still so far this year the tomatoes ripen on the vine, despite a changing pattern of fog and wind. Small dry-farmed Early Girls, and fat, convoluted heirloom beefsteaks. The air is so smoky anyway; we build a fire in a pair of grills, and char pound after pound of tomatoes over the glowing coals. Another beloved companion makes the hot, smoky work into a pleasure; we are better together, sharing labor and company, using tongs to rotate the bursting fruits over the shimmering heat. Salty, smoky, hot, uncomfortable, delightful. We will remember this day when we pull the jars from the pantry in months to come. After grilling, the tomatoes cool in stainless steel bowls, and after they cool, we can easily slip off their skins to reveal the paler fruit beneath, infused with the warm smoky flavor that will taste even better in the cool winter months ahead. As we peel the tomatoes, we set aside some of the skins, to make tomato skin togarashi. The barbecued tomato recipe is an adaptation of an oven-roasted tomato recipe we found in one of our favorite canning books, but the basic tenets of water-bath canning apply. We wash and boil the jars in a canning kettle, heat the crushed tomatoes in a heavy bottomed pan.

We are grateful for a supply chain that provides us with canning lids for all the Ball jars we have hoarded over the years, a fresh lid every time on old jars that have by now Seen Some Things. We check the rims for tiny chips, smile in recognition at the slanted writing that reads Kerr on the side of some of the mismatched quart jars; these Kerr quarts haven’t been made since 1992. There is a quiet satisfaction in keeping something so fragile and useful and cheap in working condition for so long, a recognition of utility and frugality and quality. Probably many of the Ball jars are just as old, but it is harder to tell their age. These jars are old friends, though, many of them salvaged from garages and sheds and dusty pantries, cleaned up and pressed back into service after years of abandonment. We are grateful for our own stash of jars in cardboard boxes, stacked in the shed one by one as they are emptied every year, to await a moment when they will be filled again. It might be time to get some new rings, though. Unlike the lids, which must be replaced after a single use, the rings can be reused over and over, but they do eventually rust, especially if they are not removed after the jar has sealed.

We measure salt and citric acid into individual jars, ladle the tomatoes into each waiting quart. We wipe the rim of the jar clean, set the lids on and tighten the rings, just finger tight. We lower half a dozen jars at once into the boiling water, and adjust the flame; more heat and steam to add to this hot summer day.

Ice cubes from the freezer clink into smaller pint jars; a cold drink is in order, while the tomatoes process in the canner. A silent toast, clink of glass on glass, ice cube on ice cube, eye contact and a weary smile making a recognition and a celebration of the ordinary moment. The water returns to a boil; we sip from our jars, note the time and start counting the minutes. When the jars are processed, we lift the rack carefully from the lurching water, set the jars to cool on the counter. We repeat the pattern, more tomatoes, more acid, more salt. More time, more heat, more jars to fill the pantry. Over and over, around and around, every year. A tomato anniversary we will celebrate in soup and saucepans for the whole year ahead. We made 30 quarts together, that day.

When the jars are cool, we label them in scrawled Sharpie pen. Every batch we make, we choose a different silly name, to commemorate the year, the day, and the contents of the jar. Last year, we called the canned tomato quarts Smoke and Fire. This year, we called them Love Apples. To remind us not just of the smoke and the haze of Anthropocene August, but of the joy and value inherent in each gleaming fruit, each clear salvaged jar, each day spent tending the processes that sustain us; mulch and moisture, companionship and shared labor, celebration. and stewardship. Tenderness.

By Jessica Tunis

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