The garden, soon to be filled with tomatoes and other vegetables, lay past the deck and down the hill where the land made a flat spot between the house and the large pole barn. It was about an acre in size; to put that in perspective, a football field is 1.32 acres including the in-zones. The field was grass before we had a neighbor come over and till it. Watching the plow turn the soil foot by foot was mesmerizing. Somehow, the field looked bigger standing stark out against the grass now surrounding it.
Planting the garden was a monumental undertaking itself given the labor force that we had: two children and a work-tired dad. We ended up having to till and re-till the soil with a small hand-guided tiller because it took us so long to get around to planting. Every seed and especially every seedling from the greenhouse was treated as though it held the final spark of life on earth. After planting, the paths were strewn with straw to prevent weeds from growing, and, for the same reason, a bed of straw was prepared around the seedlings’ base.
As the labor, we didn’t always know what we were planting, as it didn’t really matter to us at the time; we were just following mom’s orders. But somewhere along the line was a miscalculation in the number of tomatoes. As I’ve noted before, my family had a problem with knowing what scale to use in the country. We had gotten too many layer chickens, too many pigs, and we had planted too many tomatoes.
There were other crops, of course: onions, potatoes, green beans, broccoli, and what have you—but a full half of the garden was given over to tomatoes. From the little cherry salad tomatoes the size of a thumb, up through the ovoid tomatoes that fit in your palm, to the meaty gigantic type. We had them all. My mom tried to pass the mixture off as intentional, but we knew somewhere along the line she had us plant far too many cherry and meaty tomatoes.
Once, when sent outside to each fill a pot full of tomatoes, my brother and I discovered that it was much more fun to fling cherry tomatoes at each other and use our pots as makeshift shields. The battle was hard-pressed and even until one of us rediscovered grape-shot, rendering the pot-shield obsolete and drastically increasing the danger of a nutting. Eventually, the battle was decided by yelling from the house that we had better have full pots of tomatoes.
Both our pots were empty, so we rushed to get as many tomatoes as possible to avoid our mom’s wrath. But my brother was four years younger, a slow picker, and deathly afraid of receiving a whooping. To protect my brother, I dumped part of my pot into his until they were even, and we claimed that those were the only ripe tomatoes we could find. We were met with disbelief, but mom was too busy to verify our work.
I remember that hot sun beating down while the tomatoes trellised up on either side of the path creating a verdure tunnel. Somehow the sun always managed to be directly overhead in the summer so even the hated vines provided no shade. The hot stink of tomatoes was almost unbearable as I crawled down the paths weeding them. After being done, you would need to change clothes because the tomato stink permeated whatever you wore.
Even harvesting them could be revolting. When it was time for picking, nothing was as disgusting as tomatoes. You might pick fifty ripe and perfectly fine ones, then you would see another ripe tomato, but, without warning, your fingers would slide around the back into a warm, rotting, unholy mess.
My mother was the foreman over the whole operation, but there were frequent labor-management disputes regarding mom’s insane expectations for a crew of only two kids and a dad. For example, once she had read somewhere that we should build raised beds for the whole garden, but we, the builders, were reticent to carry out this monumental task. In general, we would put up some resistance before dad caved and we had to do things mom’s way.
The retrieval process was only a third of the actual work. Next came the canning.
And canned they were: skinned tomatoes in juice, pasta sauce, chunky pasta sauce. But once the process started, it was more than just tomatoes: anything mom could lay her hands on got canned. The operation took over the entire kitchen. Supervised by my mom, we didn’t get very close to the machines that ground up tomatoes and extruded tomato juice and a playdough size tube of plant waste.
Heat from the kitchen would wash through the house as mom ran two canners. These gigantic steel pots had lids that screwed on so that they could build up enough pressure and heat to seal the glass cans. You couldn’t even open the windows for a breeze because the rows and rows of freshly canned produce needed to be brought to room temperature slowly. Even in the summer, it was often cooler outside the house than in when there was canning going on.
Once the cans had cooled sufficiently, it was time to box them up for transport to the basement. There were row upon row of tomatoes, jams, green beans, even canned chicken. You might be surprised to hear that you can can chicken, but you’ll find it at the grocery store if you look. Canned chicken was a favorite of my mother’s. Since it was already cooked, it could be combined with some canned vegetables for an almost-instant stew.
The basement was a monument to summers past and took on almost a sanctified feeling of reverence for all the work put into each jar. Every one could last up to a year before starting to significantly lose quality, as the caliber would decrease with time. So, it was with great care that we retrieved cans from the basement. Of course, just as we planted far too much, we canned far too much. There are still cans of green beans down there whose sharpie written dates have faded off just waiting for a hapless soul to crack the long expired seal. God help them.