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Talking to a gardener can be like talking to a dog owner. Ten minutes into a dog conversation, stories of barking, shedding, scratching, biting, pooping, running off, fleas, ticks, garbage mischief, vet bills and the heartbreak of losing a pet come up. Then they will ask, “Why don’t you guys get a dog?” With gardeners, the stories are about hoeing, staking, fertilizing, watering, the deer, the weeds, the weather, the deer, the bugs, the deer and the heartbreak of losing a plant. Then they will ask, “You do have a garden, don’t you?”
Tomatoes will especially break your heart. Even the greenest of thumbs can come up against the fickle heart of a tomato. Gardeners in Puget Sound are accustomed to the September disappointment of a pot or yard full of hard, green tomatoes but across the country, even in the “Heartland”, Early Girls and Big Boys sometimes refuse to succeed.
When I was a kid, Daddy always had a summer garden and in Nebraska, that meant tomatoes, lots of tomatoes. By the end of August, Muth would do anything to get rid of the relentless harvest. On one especially hot summer evening when dinner was finished and the last tomato was canned, Daddy proudly banged the screen door open with yet another bushel. As soon as he went to bed, Muth carted the bushel to the end of the alley and dumped it out.
When the Sweetie and I lived on Vashon, we tended a large, square garden between our house and Muth’s house. In the fall we raked until our hands blistered, wheelbarrowed loads of rotten pears and apples, and trucked in pickups full of free manure which the Sweetie rotoed into the dirt. After a long winter’s nap, he (the Sweetie that is, not the dirt) rotoed again, planted spring lettuce, chard, peas, then went on the road to work. Muth and I replanted, watered, fed, and fought off the deer for the rest of the summer.
We could count on baskets of beets, chard, lettuce, potatoes and sacks full of tomatillos—tomatoes, not so much. One year we planted store-bought, twelve-inch tomato seedlings, did everything Cisco Morris told us to do and, by the end of summer, we had four long rows of robust, leafy plants full of red tomatoes. One morning about a week before we planned to harvest our crop, the Sweetie walked out into the yard to find four long rows of black, limp plants killed off by “the fungus.”
But one summer, the stars aligned and by mid-September we had ripe Romas lined up on every windowsill. We ate as many as we could, gave them away, then decided to make sauce. We supplemented our success with a few boxes from Eastern WA, lugged the electric Thanksgiving roaster up from the basement, borrowed one camp stove and bought two portable burners from Granny’s Attic. First came the peeling, then the chopping and dicing, until simmering sauce covered every hot surface in the kitchen and on the deck. By the end of the weekend, we had twenty-six quart jars full of spaghetti sauce on the kitchen table.
When my sister Nikki stopped by, I proudly pointed out the evidence of our labor. She said, “You know, you can buy a jar at Thriftway for $1.59.” She didn’t, however, turn down the offered jar. Anyways, if I had a bushel of tomatoes today, I’d make my friend Nancy’s Tomato Jam. She didn’t have her recipe with her, but here’s a reasonable approximation.
- 1 ½ pounds Roma tomatoes peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
- 1 cup fine-dice sweet onions
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon grated or minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.
Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 30 minutes.
Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate.