I'm sure that canning tomatoes would be easier with more than one set of hands, but two years in to my ritual and I think it might be something I just do on my own. Last August I lost a job and it broke my heart. It was the job that I had moved back to Philadelphia for and, while I really do love this place, it was an awful, sinking feeling to be suddenly untethered, yet encumbered by the lease I had signed less than a year prior, when everything I owned was still packed and ready to land anywhere. The months that followed have proved challenging, peppered as they have been with incredible firsts and terrible fears. They eventually led me to the place I am now: writing, storytelling, and striving every day to figure how to make a living at it in a shifting media world where even trained journalists are jumping ship.
But back to the tomatoes. In those first days of unemployment I did exactly what you might expect: I watched television, but two days and an entire season of Portlandia in I had to come up with an alternate plan. For the first time ever I hauled my Presto pressure canner - the one I received as a Christmas gift years ago - out of the basement and sat down with the instruction booklet.
Pressure canning is a little bit scary, after all. Who among us hasn't heard some awful story about a 1970's era pressure cooker exploding, pot roast sprayed across the kitchen ceiling? But encouraged by the safety release valves on my modern canner I soldiered forth.
I canned them whole, with backyard basil and oregano, crushed, and sauced, the thick puree forced through my thrift store food mill. When the slicing tomatoes I had canned wound up with half of each jar as float, I opened them, drained them, and canned them again. In the space of days, I went from pressure canning novice to wild canning machine. I could not be stopped. That year I canned three cases, sixty pounds, of tomatoes.
Besides wine and the support of friends, of which there has been plenty, there's something meditative about canning tomatoes, and perhaps in any repetitive task, that, for me anyway, made it the ideal kind of work for a time when I needed to be soothed.
Tumbling the fruit into the sink to wash, scoring the skin, blanching in boiling water, and removing to cool, slipping the skins off, stewing, milling, ladling, wiping, sealing, processing. Repetitive work, requiring focus, but also ample time to be alone with ones thoughts.
I did it again this year, and while my thoughts aren't necessarily any more settled than they were a year ago, the tomatoes are still teaching me: that even our best plans don't always pan out, that the first frost will come eventually, that winter will be cold and lasagna is good, and that even when repetitive tasks feel less like meditiaion and more like drudgery, they too will eventually conclude.