—by Cathy Labath
My fingernails sometimes indicate what produce is ripe in my garden. In early summer strawberries, red raspberries, beets and mulberries stain the tips of my fingernails (and sometimes my hands and clothes) various shades ranging from light pink to dark purple. The cole crops, corn and peppers keep them my natural shade and they appear dirty looking if I have pulled too many weeds. But for about a month in late summer when I process tomatoes the color that stays under my fingernails is a pale yellow-orange.
Sometime after Christmas and before our tax forms arrive in the mail I receive catalogs from numerous seed companies. In late winter I love to curl up on the couch under a homemade quilt away from the drifts of snow I can see through the deck door, cup of tea or hot chocolate (because Starbucks with a Vente Carmel Machiatto is too far away) in one hand and a seed catalog in the other. I dog-ear the pages that I wish to refer back to and after I am finished with the first reading of the pile of catalogs it appears there are more pages dog-eared than not.
At first I started growing tomatoes from the four-packs purchased at the local nurseries where they had only a couple of varieties that I suppose they deemed the best for our growing area. I'm not sure when I decided to start my tomatoes from seed but I do know it was probably around 1984. That was the year the Celebrity tomato was announced as an AAS (All American Selection) winner. I remember I couldn't decide which tomato seeds to purchase and the AAS award convinced me to try Celebrity. The fact that it was VFFNT (resistant to verticillium, fusarium 1 and 2, nematodes and tobacco mosaic virus) helped with the selection since I had experienced some kind of wilt or disease on the nursery offered varieties of tomatoes in previous years.
Park Seed: " Celebrity is a superior all-around tomato with such fantastic disease resistance you can put away the sprays and soaps for good! These determinate plants are exceptionally strong, bearing masses of smooth, round, bright red tomatoes. Weighing about 8 ounces, they're very uniform (no green shoulders here!) and resist cracking. " I happen to concur. They have been a staple in my garden every year.
This year my husband and I decided we were going to try a few heirloom varieties of seeds so we could save the seeds from them each year to plant the next like I do with my zinnias. I'm not much of a decision maker mainly because I want every kind of tomato (and flower and pepper and lettuce and potato, etc) so my husband decided we would try Black Krim- a black tomato originating from the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea, Polish Linguisa – a red roma-type tomato which despite its name originated in New York and Stupice (pronounced Stoo-PEECH-ka), a red tomato with origins in Czechoslovakia which he probably chose because of his Slavic roots.
In early March we set up our lights, planted our seeds in potting soil in miniature greenhouses, watered from below and waited. All but Stupice produced seedlings. I waited a few weeks and finally decided to plant a few more Stupice seeds. Again, they did not germinate. The others we transplanted into the garden after May 15th, the last frost date for this area (zone 5). It was a cool summer again this year so we didn't pick many tomatoes until August. Tomatoes are heat sensitive and produce best when night time temperatures range between 60-70 degrees. Many nights this summer fell short of the sixty degree mark. I remember when the kids were younger (the '70s and '80s) I would take time off work to can tomatoes the last week of July - around the time of the Bix (Biederbecke) Fest. It would be so hot that without air-conditioning I was afraid I would drip sweat into the jars before I sealed them. I think the last six or seven years I have had to wait until mid August to harvest tomatoes.
No one taught me how to can tomatoes. I read about it in a couple of books I checked out at the library in the days I could not afford to buy my own books. The few relatives I knew that "put up" fruits and vegetables did not live nearby and I had never been around when they did their processing. I have always used the "raw pack" method of canning tomatoes – blanch tomatoes, remove skins, pack into clean quart jars, add a teaspoon of canning salt and a teaspoon of lemon juice, process in boiling water bath fifty-five minutes. My husband's Aunt Essy used the "open kettle" method – blanch tomatoes, remove skins, sterilize jars, bring tomatoes to boil, pack into jars, turn jars upside down for twenty minutes to seal. The USDA does not recommend either method these days. Instead they now recommend a combination of the two methods – the "open kettle" method except instead of turning jars upside down to seal they should be placed in the boiling water bath for fifty-five minutes. Ideally it is recommended they be sealed in a pressure cooker. When I happened to mention to Aunt Essy (who had eleven children) that her method of canning was outdated and unsafe she told me she'd done it that way and never killed any of her kids so she was going to continue like she always had. When I read a few years later that my method was no longer an approved method I, too, felt the same way. Canning methods, like traditions, are hard to change.
Grandma called them fruit jars, Aunt Essy called them Mason jars and I call them canning jars mainly because I use all brands (Ball, Kerr, Atlas - not just Mason). I used to pack my tomatoes into empty mayonnaise jars against USDA advice. Now mayonnaise jars are made of plastic so that takes care of that problem. Although I have a whole basement full of jars both full and empty, I don't believe I have any valuable ones or will get rich selling them. Mason jars have been around since 1858 when John Landis Mason patented a glass jar with a threaded neck that would take a metal screw cap. Blown glass jars made before 1915 are more valuable than the molded glass that came after. I've seen jars at auction that date around the time of the civil war with pontil marks intact that sell for sixty to eighty dollars and I've seen aqua jars at the thrift store for fifty to ninety-six cents. I buy neither. I don't need more jars.
Besides canning whole tomatoes this year we made tomato jam - an old family recipe of my husband's. It can be found on the yellowed, food-stained card inside the metal box in my kitchen cupboard. This tomato jam is made the old-fashioned way without pectin and with lots of sugar, simmered for hours until it thickens. It tastes like it is made of plums to me. Until I was married I had never heard of tomato jam; my old 1949 Burpee Seed catalog advised that yellow pear tomatoes were the sweetest and made the best jam. We also used his family recipe to make chili sauce which is similar to a thick catsup. My husband fondly remembers using it as a child on everything from scrambled eggs to hot dogs. The recipe for this too can be found in the old rusty recipe box. We had to laugh when we saw it called for a peck of tomatoes. We remembered from our school lessons that it was a fourth of a bushel but since we had no bushel basket we had to do a little research to find that a peck was equivalent to two gallons. I'm glad my mixer has a grinder attachment because I'm not sure how long it would have taken to grind all of the peppers, onions and tomatoes before they were simmered and reduced to a thick sauce. It probably took my husband's ancestors all day. And, similar to the chili sauce but with different herbs and spices, we canned salsa we made from a recipe found on the internet.
We never did get around to saving any tomato seeds this year. The Black Krim were not very plentiful and we ate all we harvested fresh. They were a beautiful deep dark purple-black color when picked but when sliced they looked like they were rotten. But they had an excellent flavor and were soft and juicy. They were supposed to taste salty; however, I didn't think so. Maybe next year we will try a different heirloom variety of black tomato. We will definitely plant Polish Linguisa again. It was a large red sausage shaped roma-type tomato and a heavy producer. We used it mixed with Celebrity in most of our recipes.
After tomatoes, my fingernails stayed a light yellow-orange for a couple more weeks while I harvested pie pumpkins and winter squash, roasted, mashed and froze it. Then they turned purple and faded to gray after I crushed grapes for wine.
Today my fingernails contain no natural dyes or dirt and will stay that way until spring. I'm not going to pick up any black walnuts this season.
Cathy Labath ©2009