As the hot days of August wear on, I look forward to “the call.”
It comes from cousin Ray Torre to tell me that the “tamadas” are ripe. He wants to know whether I am ready for the annual family tomato canning process, usually the third week in August.
We carry on a tradition that our Sicilian grandmother, Santa Digangi, started in the basement of her Queens home in the 1940s so her family could have homemade sauce for the coming year.
When I was a girl in the 1960s, my Uncle Joe Digangi would drive Grandma in his enormous winged Chrysler to the Wallabout Market in Brooklyn to purchase cases of plum tomatoes. At home in Richmond Hill, my grandfather, Michele Digangi, set up cumbersome equipment and pots of boiling water to sterilize the jars while harvesting basil he grew in the backyard.
Grandma ran the show, giving some of her six daughters instructions to wash, peel and chop the tomatoes. She canned both whole tomatoes and puree. For the latter, she ran the fruit through a machine to separate pulp and seeds. Then she would fill jars, add basil, screw on the lids and boil the filled jars. At the end of the day, they would collapse in a stupor of exhaustion!
Around 2010, when I joined our family’s modern-day ritual, Ray asked how many plum tomatoes I wanted. I told him 100 pounds, but he was reluctant to set up his backyard canning operation in Massapequa for so few. So we doubled the amount. Now, he buys five crates of 50 pounds of tomatoes each at a local farmers market.
Our process and product differ a bit from Grandma’s. Our jars will contain sauce, not just puree and skinned tomatoes, perhaps a nod to today’s busy lifestyles.
So under a canopy to protect us from the sun, Ray sets up butcher blocks for chopping, and the machine for separating seeds and pulp. As cousins arrive, mostly from the area, the talking never stops as we share family news. After a mid-morning break for bagels and coffee, we begin in earnest to cook the tomatoes down in propane-fueled turkey fryer pots, boiling off the liquid. We stir constantly with oar-like wooden paddles until Ray says it is time to jar.
The assembly line of five or six people starts. The boiling sauce is carefully poured into nearly 100 quart jars. We handle the jars with tongs because they are superhot from sterilization in other fryer pots. A leaf of fresh basil is placed on top, and lids are screwed on tight. The hot jars are lined up on the deck and we hear the pop-pop of the lids sealing as they cool, assuring that our precious sauce is safe to store.
We set aside some sauce to enjoy that evening on macaroni, with lots of red wine. I will split this day’s batch with a sister and a cousin, and my nearly 30 jars will last all year. But production goes on for two more weeks, and our backyard kitchen will have turned a total of 750 to 1,000 pounds of tomatoes into sauce for more family and friends.
But no time to rest on our laurels; in September, winemaking will begin, and Ray will preside over another tradition that we hope never ends.
Reader Christine McKnight lives in East Northport.