Home-Grown Roma Tomatoes Inspired a Return to Her Culinary Roots

A new mother of three, she had little time for kitchen creativity, but tackling her mother's (and grandmother's) pasta sauce brought rich rewards.

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- Posted on Jun 25, 2020

An artist's rendering of cherubs frolicking on a tomato vine

I stood in my father’s garden one late summer evening, watching my three toddlers dig in the dirt with toy bulldozers as the last of the sunlight began to wane. I had driven up to my parents’ house that afternoon in a fit of desperation. My husband was working a double shift, my twins hadn’t napped, and I was one misstep away from a complete breakdown. “Come up,” my mom said. “Let us wear the kids out. Rest for a while.”

As the day of respite drew to a close, I was thankful but dreading the bedtime routine ahead of me, and wandered along Dad’s once-neat garden rows. The tomato plants had begun to take over their planned zones with an unruly wildness that recalled my housekeeping. I glanced at the sagging, heavy vines.

Roma tomatoes,” my father said, “the kind for sauce. Remember when your mom used to can sauce?”

I hadn’t thought of it in years, actually. The funnel and crank clamped to the edge of the picnic table, the endless motion of spinning the handle as seeds were separated from pulp. Multiple stockpots simmering for hours as the smell permeated the house with the promise of many comforting Sunday meals. The neat line of jars to be filled with bright red tomato sauce, and the heat bath that would seal them tightly for the winter months.

It was a labor of love, a recipe passed from my Italian immigrant great-grandmother down to my grandmother and then my mother.

And that’s where it had stopped.

I moved out on my own at the explosion of the Pinterest era, at the height of the domestic blogger and the Food Network. I was a decent cook, but my desire to try something new or different or trendy every night characterized those early years in my kitchen. Why simmer tomato sauce all day when I could follow step-by-step instructions and glossy photos to make sweet potato pesto sauce or bacon-asparagus Cajun pasta? I rarely made the same dish twice.

Then in the blink of an eye, we were a family of five. I switched from searching for unique, complicated recipes to pinning things like “Ten Freezer Meals in Under an Hour” and “30 One-Pot Wonders for Busy Moms.” The chaos was joyful and exhausting all at once. I worried I was losing myself while trying to keep up. There was so much to fall short of these days, and I over-researched every aspect—earmarked parenting books, joined mommy-and-me groups, practiced self-care.

I had floundered, sought a village and come up lacking. I had tried to helicopter parent, attachment parent and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants parent. So many ways to fail every day! At night when I remembered to pray, I fell asleep mid-sentence.

Now Dad had given me an idea. “I’m going to make sauce,” I said. My father raised a skeptical eyebrow but grabbed some boxes and told the kids to start picking. Our van pulled out of my parents’ driveway an hour later with three boxes of ripe Roma tomatoes in the rear. After the bedtime battle was over, I Amazon-Primed myself a hand-crank food mill with a giant funnel, just like the one that we had taken turns using as kids in the late summer heat.

Two days later I clamped the food mill onto my counter and lugged the boxes of tomatoes up from the basement. The perishable nature of these treasures pushed me past my hesitation and the overwhelming weight of my to-do list. Laundry could wait. I had a lot invested in this fruit. The twins tossed tomatoes like softballs to each other as the youngest begged to turn the crank. Everyone was crying at one point, and I almost gave up on my grand scheme in favor of opening another jar of Ragu.

Yet something inside me fought back, a deep-seated desire to connect to the women in the generations before me, to perform a simple task from a simpler time and repeat their success.

After two hours of cranking and scraping, my hand ached, my walls were splattered with tomato bits, and my kids were engaged in some sort of Lord of the Flies remake in my backyard. I then began the laborious task of turning the stockpot of puree into the savory relic of my childhood.

I had a copy of the original recipe complete with the oil stains and sauce marks of my grandmother. The measurements were estimates, the details vague. Garlic, onions and salt sauteed before the tomatoes were added. Then a “slight handful” of brown sugar, a “covering” of oregano, basil, parsley and pepper. “Simmer low all day. Taste often by dipping Italian bread.”

My first batch wasn’t great, but the second batch hearkened back to Sunday dinners I grew up on. My parents approved, especially because the sauce was served with al dente pasta that my kids declared ready when a flung test noodle stuck to the wall. Success all around.

The efforts I made with those boxes of tomatoes gave us months of Sunday dinners, and at each one I relived the sense of accomplishment and control I had found in following a family tradition. Each crank of the handle, each slice of the knife, each stir of the stockpot was a prayer for comfort and confidence. Like most things that are worthwhile, the mess was part of the process.

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