Thursday, January 21, 2010

CANNED TOMATOES


My Mother’s Father was a smalltown man---he lived inside a twenty-mile radius all his life. He had a smalltown business, in an old building he owned, just around the block from the house that he and Mammaw had occupied since their marriage in 1917.

I know nothing about his military service, or if he served at all, for they never mentioned it, and there are no pictures of him in any kind of uniform. I would think that he’d have been away fighting in WWI instead of at home courting my Mammaw, and then in WWII, he was already fifty, and probably exempt.

He had several odd talents---he could wiggle his ears (a feat inherited by my daughter, and nobody else I know of), he could go from a standing position, flexing his knees, and sit straight down between his knees, then rise right back up without holding onto anything or putting his hands on the floor.

And he could swallow a gallon of water without taking the jug down from his mouth. As odd as that seems for braggin’ material, there it is. He won many a bet from traveling salesmen and passengers getting off the train to stretch their legs for a moment, and a whole gaggle of old men would get into the betting pool when word went out that Mr. Eb was doing his trick.

He would lift the clear jug into the air, sling it over his shoulder with his index finger crooked through the little round glass ring, and drink every drop from the brim-filled container---then lift the empty jug for all to see, to great applause and cheering---not particularly for his exploit, but for the chink of coin which changed hands. The fact that he turned immediately and threw up the entire gallon into the viburnums---well, to the men and boys gathered, that only added to the fun of the event.

And Mammaw could barely show her face in church the next day.

Grandpa liked canned tomatoes, the ones Mammaw raised and canned by the hundreds of quarts every year. She would spend August and September mornings in that hot kitchen with that old blue white-speckled “kittle” simmering away---this after she’d boiled it full of water, poured that over a sinkful of tomatoes, then slip-skinned them down to their smooth, rich meat, ready to be cored and simmered.

A couple of the quarts from the storehouse stood always chilling in the old Philco, replaced each day by a fresh jar, as the supply dwindled over the year. In the middle of the afternoon, Grandpa would catch a lull in business, step round the block, and come in the back door with a cheerful, “Med!!! Got any cold tomatoes?”

She’d set out the box of crackers and a soup-bowl, reach down the cheery red bank-logoed bottle opener from the nail on the wall, and shisssssh open that Mason jar. She’d pour half of the quart into his bowl, set down two glasses of tea, and sit across from him for a little rest while he crumbled six or eight saltines into the deep, ruby-red sauce. He’d sometimes salt and pepper the mix, sometimes not---he had a theory about the heat of the day and black pepper---a complicated barometric/meteorological scale in his brain which was a mystery to the rest of us.

He’d spoon up the tangy cold soup, with its little islands of pink melting cracker bits and speckles of tiny gold seeds, then drain his glass of 40-weight tea, lay down his napkin, say “Thank you for the termaters,” and be out the door and back to work before she could drink half her glass.

I have no idea how many quarts of tomatoes Mammaw canned over the years, for a jar or two were the base of every soup save chicken, and three quarts a week, six afternoons of bowlsworth---well, that added up. I’ve spent many a Summer canning hundreds of quarts of garden stuff myself, in an air-conditioned kitchen, and I have nothing but admiration for my Mammaw, who did what she had to do to keep her family going.

And, except for her prize-winning flowers and the generosity with which she shared them with people and events and weddings and funerals, she’s probably not remembered by many. Grandpa’s doings had more flash and public notice, as it were, and he was most likely mentioned for a long time, but I seldom think of him at all. My heart’s ever with her and our years together. Women who take time with children, investing in their lives, are remembered longer than kings and conquerors.

4 comments:

Tonja said...

I loved this, Rachel. And, I can see as well as taste those termaters! My Granny and my Aunts used to always have canned tomatoes! Oh, they were good!
And, I love your comments on the women of those times. They really were the backbones of the family, weren't they? Even though the men probably thought they were. But, the women...they did it all...so much more than homemakers today have to do.
Great post!

~~louise~~ said...

I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. Longing for times when life was simple. I awaken from my daydream when I read a post like yours, Rachel or open an antique cookbook. Life was far from simple then.

I don't know how the women did it. I'm not sure I could. As for the men, like your Grandpa, many found ways to amuse themselves while keeping their dignity and providing the little extras for their families for a "chink of coin." I'm thinking your Grandmother found pleasure in sipping her tea while your Grandpa enjoyed the fruits of her labor, unconditionally.

Thank you so much for sharing this lovely story. It really made my day:)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if she ever thought while sitting there, "does he realize how hot I got cooking those, how many hours I hoed, and watered, and on and on..." then forgot it all when he said "Thank You for the ..." And how healthy the water and tea and tomatoes and the exercise that kept him able to squat/sit/get up. Loved reading about them.

Janie said...

Wonderful memories - wonderfully written. Takes me back to treasured thoughts of those alaready in that city where the streets are paved with gold.