November 2003

Tomato Memoirs

by Enrico Uva

Accenti NEIGHBOURHOOD SNAPSHOT : Tomato Memoirs by Enrico Uva

For some people, early September is tomato season - not just the time for harvesting a fruit once believed to be poisonous, but two weeks of the year when garage doors are slightly ajar, as propane quietly burns indoors.


While most garages store cars, junk and dust, the garages of many Italian Canadians bustle with activity around Labour Day. Hundreds of kilos of tomatoes are being stockpiled, ripened, turned into sauce and preserved.


It was Mario at work who got me thinking about pomodori or "golden apples," if you translate the Latin-Italian combo literally. On the previous night, he had bought four bushels for his 84-year-old mother, and when he arrived with the goods from the market, her eyes lit up. In the words of his wife, a modern Italian who sins by using store-bought sauce in the winter, "the old woman was ecstatic."


For senior citizens, Canadian winters are cruel, and more people die in the snowy months than during any other season. To a traditionalist, tomato sauce must unconsciously be a symbol of hope. One hundred fifty jars stored in the cantina act like a companion, promising to pull the aged through another winter. Sauce is the colour of blood, and like life itself, it can be sweet and fragrant.


When we were children, tomato-time was a community effort. Someone always had a pickup to drive as many people as possible to the farms in Laval or the South Shore. More cars would follow, filled with "child labourers," kin and neighbours for extra tomato-picking support.


The tomato farmer whose fields were about to be invaded for the first time was typically not Italian and especially apprehensive, probably having heard stories about those "strangers" who ravage through tomato fields like locusts and overpack bushels to double the normal density.


After driving the treasure home, we would lay it out on old blankets to let it ripen. For an entire week the house smelled of tomatoes, the aroma gradually intensifying if rookies had mistakenly picked bruised or rotten ones.


The next weekend, the home with the widest garage was chosen, a makeshift table was set up and tasks were assigned. It was a division of labour that was the envy of efficient industrialists. There were washers who recycled Unico, Kraft and Pisa glassware for bottling; cutters who sliced the tomatoes in two; grinders who squeezed the juice out after boiling, bottlers who slipped in a leaf of garden-fresh basil and strong-wristed cappers to seal the jars.


My favourite part was the last stage in the process, boiling the jars in order to pressure seal them. Old oil barrels were taken outdoors and placed on leftover construction blocks. The jars were wrapped in old rags; the nearest neighbour's hose would be dragged out to fill each barrel with water. At night, while crickets chirped away, and when uninvolved neighbours least suspected it, the fires were lit. We played hide-and-seek for hours in spite of the darkness, knowing that our parents would not retreat into their homes until the sauce had been preserved.



Enrico Uva teaches at Lauren Hill Academy in Montreal.



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