Monday, July 25, 2011


Tomatoes have been around farmers markets for a few weeks already, but it seems it's just been in the last few days that they have started appearing in great quantities. I've been eyeing them, trying to figure out how we would be able to afford to purchase enough tomatoes--even at their cheapest, they are about a dollar a pound. I have absolutely no problem with paying farmers fairly, but since I've only had two weeks of employment this summer, money is getting tight. In order to really put up enough salsa, soup, marinara, and just plain tomatoes to last us a full year, I need over a hundred pounds. I couldn't bear the thought of a tomato-less winter, so I kept looking around for slightly damaged or over-ripe tomatoes in bulk. As luck would have it, I found out that the University of Tennessee Organic Crop Production has just this--plenty of tomato "seconds." This is what I hope to be only the beginning of the tomatoes for the season; I'm using the very last of the tomatoes from these boxes this morning, and will be getting a couple more boxes on Friday.

As I've been making my way through the tomatoes, I've also been thinking about my purpose in putting up. Although I love preserving fruit, even in its most utilitarian form--in extra-light syrup--fruit still doesn't seem quite as necessary as putting up tomatoes, soups, stock, and other savory items. And because putting up tomatoes--and other vegetables--creates something which will sustain us in the winter months, there is more urgency in the process. The relative fleetingness of the tomato season makes the tomatoes precious, and I almost have a reverence for the jars of tomatoes in my pantry. I'm trying to say something that I can't quite vocalize, or perhaps something that I understand so well, that there are no longer words for it. Why do I preserve? Why do I make the effort to obtain such a heavy load of fruit and then spend several full days in the kitchen monitoring the simmering, and the processing? Because this is what there is here and now. Even though I did not have a hand in growing these tomatoes, they are of this land, and with my efforts, they will last a year, until the next tomato season. Preserving emphasizes the value of what is in season; there is an aspect of making do with what one has here and now, rather than seeking the same food on an as-needed basis. Anyone can go to the store and purchase almost anything--salsa, tomato sauce, canned tomatoes--on a whim. Preserving is deliberate. I have to plan for the full year when I put up; prior to canning, I'd never really thought about how many jars of marinara we go through in a year, but now, I could tell you an exact number. Last year, I only canned a dozen jars of plain tomatoes, and by early April, we'd run out; we ended up buying a couple cans of tomatoes throughout the spring, but it was not the same. The flavor was flat, and there was no satisfaction in opening them. This year, I know better. I know that to many, these kinds of efforts sound a little crazy; but just you put up a few jars of roasted tomatoes, open one in the middle of January (to eat on toast, pizza, or in soup), and you'll know where I'm coming from.


Elizabeth said...

If I could only can one food item would have to be tomatoes. They are used maybe 4-5 times a week , if not daily at our house. Salsa alone I need 26 jars for the year. Tomatoes take up 3/4 of my garden with 24 plants. We have a short season here and I always plant some early girls so get some plants as fast as possible (45 days) and we just brought in the first of the season on Saturday. So far we have had TLTs (fake bacon, lett tom) and tabouleh and a very large batch of fresh salsa.

I do all juice and sauce and diced and whole...I also freeze some too when don't have a canner load full. I never do spaghetti sauce as I just make my own each time with whatever I feel like adding to it and I don't pressure can.

I am glad you found an economical source for tomatoes, but your initial outlay will save you so much down the line.

Lynn said...

I think it's hard to explain the satisfaction you get from putting up your own food. When you open a jar in the dead of winter that came from your canning efforts, maybe even your own home-grown produce -- it just feels so good. Thanks for putting it in to words :)

zemmely said...

This is the first year that I've had a garden, and my second year canning. I'm discovering the pleasures of growing and putting up food--I can't believe this used to be considered "drudgery." I definitely understand the hard work, but as you said, Elizabeth, I save myself from spending money in the future.
And Lynn, so many people in my family (who don't can) look at me a little askew when I, beaming with pride, present them with my precious jars. Oh well--at least we, canners, understand.

Susan said...

Well, I hear you on the little employment/frugal end! We are exactly there this summer. Thankfully we have a relationship with a successful local CSA and were able to arrange a barter agreement. I bring food for their workers a certain number of times/season in exchange for free share & extras I pick. Can you do a barter arrangement for a local farm?

btw, we put up 28 jars of tomatoes (we grew a lot of our own) last year and we plowed through them. We are a family of 4--one being a 16yo teenager!

zemmely said...

Susan--I figured that I could spend my summer working terrible, low-paying jobs (I'm a teacher who rarely gets work in the summer), or I could spend it volunteering on farms and putting up food. Of course, I chose the latter. I've worked a couple days at the farm where we get our CSA, and received some food in return. I am also making friends with other farmers in the area so I could do the same--give them some of my time and efforts in exchange for a little produce. Thank you for bringing it up--bartering is something many people forget about.

In our family, it's just my husband and me, but we went through over 50 jars of tomato-y things last year. I know we gave some BBQ sauce away, but we still eat a lot of them!