It is a perfect late summer morning – a Saturday, to be exact, and my favorite day of the week. The front and back doors are both propped wide open and a fresh, cool breeze flows through the full depth of the house. Once I’ve disposed of the day’s obligatory small rodent that the cats have dutifully left on the back porch, Barney is free to wander in and out and pick a vantage point to keep an eye on me as I set up for the first round of canning I’ve done in years. The Ball canning book and a copy of Stocking Up III were among the first of the cookbooks I unpacked, and they will remain out in a prominent place now until late Fall.
As the 20 qt stainless stockpot full of water approaches the boil, I slip the first dozen or so perfect, ripe Roma tomatoes in to blanch, and reflect on the cases of commercially canned goods I have collected over the past few months in a room set aside upstairs for storage. When I lived in hurricane-prone North Carolina, I made a practice of keeping at least a few weeks’ worth of basics, including food, paper goods, and some 40 gallons of well water in labeled glass jugs. When Hurricane Fran swept through the Piedmont, downing trees across roadways and knocking out power for days on end, I had everything I and my animals needed and the only real compromise was bathing with water dipped out of the spa tub (yeah, that was really hard….)
The sight of tomato skins beginning to split pulls me out of my reveries and the blanched tomatoes are lifted out with a slotted spoon and replaced with a new batch. About the biggest thing we’ve had happen here in Delaware over the last few years was a blizzard right around Presidents’ Day about five years ago, and I was living right in Dover at the time so the one or two days’ road closures were a minor inconvenience; but I’ve toyed for years with the idea of seeing if I could do as the Amish here and the Mormons I knew out West do, keeping a revolving supply of one year’s worth of provisions. How do they know how much they’ll need? Do they keep records of what they use to plan for the next year? Batch #2 is drained and the third bowl full of the plum-shaped beauties goes for a swim.
My motivation for having collected and set aside food and other supplies this past Spring, of course, had less to do with any impending hurricane season than it did with the plans my then-roommate and I were making to separate our households. The prospects of a substantially decreased budget for food and pretty much everything else discretionary made sleuthing through the sale flyers each week and trolling the closeout stores start to look more and more like an attractive pastime, and at last I set a goal for myself: that of seeing if I could plan well enough to get through an entire year buying only fresh produce, pet food, kitty litter and occasional incidentals. It occurs to me that I didn’t really think to start buying extra paper goods ahead quite soon enough, and I may well run out of toilet paper and facial tissue long before the year is out, so I’ll have to watch for sales on those. I’ve always used cloth napkins, and now that I’m thinking about it, what did we all do before boxes of disposable tissues became ubiquitous? Mental note: look into the price of a dozen or so hankies. The third round of tomatoes have split, so they join the others in the sink full of ice water, and a fourth and final dozen go into the pot.
I turn to those in the sink and begin slipping off their skins and collecting them in a colander to drain. I had gotten down the big box that holds the contraption I affectionately call “the tomato squisher,” (another blessedly early find among the things that just came out of storage) and it’s been washed and clamped firmly to the sheet of butcher block that serves as a temporary countertop. I remember some years back reading what was already then an old book, called The Have More Plan. I think it was written back in the ’30s or ’40s, and it had nostalgic illustrations on the cover of a couple in work clothes, surveying the best way to cultivate their plot of ground to provide their food. There was something so simplistic and attractive about its optimism, that I remember thinking back to the first time I saw it, wondering to myself, “why not?”
It feels like something of a privilege now, to stand on a kind of line in time where on one side, I interact with people whose closest contact with the dirt their food grows in is washing salad greens; while right down the street, Amish families and a few enthusiastic DIY types sell the excess from their hand-cultivated gardens along with eggs and homemade cheese from makeshift stands at the ends of their driveways.
Gwoosh…gwoosh…gwoosh…. With each turn of the crank on the squisher, the tomatoes are crushed and pushed out the chute into a waiting stainless steel bowl on a kitchen stool.Pint jars, their lids, and the bands that screw on to hold them through the hot water bath wait in another pan of water that’s been boiled and allowed to cool a little, as I transfer the crushed tomatoes and their juice to a third stockpot to cook down. A bit of salt, some Italian seasoning, and the beautiful tomato-sauce-to-be is left on the lowest setting of the gas burner to simmer. It is time for something cold to sip on, and to record in a long unused pantry journal how good doing this feels.
Soon, the hot sauce will be ladled to within 1/2″ of the top of the jars, arranged on a rack, and lowered gently into the boiling water. Towels are arranged on a little table out on the back porch, and before long, the five perfect jars of red stand gleaming, awaiting that most satisfying of sounds – the metallic click that signals the contraction of the slowly cooling sauce, forming a vacuum and pulling the lid tight against the lip of each jar. My stores of food for the year ahead are now five pint jars of tomato sauce richer.
Journal Entry Friday evening, September 5, 2008
Tropical Storm Hannah is already making her presence known here in the darkening hours. The clouds have begun to move dramatically overhead and the wind, uncharacteristically for this time of year from the East, has picked up. I’ve turned the glass-topped lawn table upside down in the grass, put it and the chairs down snugged against the foundation of the house, and tried to make sure anything lighter than my car is either in the garage or weighted down well. I count the weeks before I have my table saw and router table on wheels and can bring the car in on rough nights; but meanwhile, feeling guilty for not having washed it for several weeks, I celebrate the first round of light rain by taking a cloth and a small plastic bucket half filled with white vinegar and a few drops of liquid detergent out to the driveway and swabbing it down during the last minutes of light.
It is Saturday, September 6th and Hannah is approaching. Barney and the three cats follow me from room to room as I gather oil lamps, crack open the out-swing awning windows that are under the deep eaves, and make sure food and water bowls are well filled. I coo to them pleasantly, being as reassuring as I would to four small children. I think I’ve had all of them out at least three times, as I know that when the wind starts howling and the rain is going sideways, I will not be at all amenable to letting anyone out, no matter how loudly they beg.
The festivities were predicted to begin earlier, so I was glad it turned out I had time, in daylight, to put out a heavy bowl to catch rain water, watch the birds take cover, and enjoy the feel of Mother Nature’s drama. It is times like these when it is easy to feel awe at that imminent source of power. Since Hurricane Carol in 1954, when my grandfather’s house was moved 1/2″ on its foundation (to his chagrin even as other families’ houses were collapsed!) I have experienced but never really feared a number of hurricanes. We are to be spared the worst of this particular storm, but another, larger one is looming dangerously in line. My prayers and wishes for their safety go out to those in the southern coastal regions.