Tomato Juice Memories

by Curt Kovener

(This is an encore column from the Curt Comments archives. In light of last week’s column telling you about the decimation of our small tomato crop, this memory from my youth helps soothe the soul.)
We are in the time of cool, fog shrouded mornings when the dew hangs heavy on any surface exposed to the night, then summer-like sunny afternoon temperatures that nearly require a change of clothes from the morning’s attire.
Such are the days of September.
As I recall, this was the time of year that, as a youth, I would be pulled out of bed early in the morning and taken to Grandma & Grandpa’s farm for tomato juice making.
Grandma always determined the time that the remaining tomato plants would be stripped of their ripened fruit and then pulled from the garden. For several days before, tomatoes were picked and left on the old iron grate table in the back yard to ripen fully.
When we would arrive at the farm, Grandpa had the fire already started and Grandma would have the copper kettle half filled with washed and quartered tomatoes.
They’d let me finish waking up and eat my breakfast of Grandma’s homemade coffeecake. While Grandpa continued with the picking and uprooting in the garden, the womenfolk kept busy washing and cutting tomatoes.
“Quit playing in the fire and come put these tomatoes in the kettle,” Grandma would call to me. And I’d fetch the bucket of cut tomatoes and struggle with my load toward the copper kettle. “Don’t spill them” was always the admonishment to any grandkid helping with tomato juice making chores.
After Grandpa set the kettle on the fire, he’d start stirring the scarlet fruits. Pretty soon, after a half dozen times asking “Can I stir?”, he’d finally let me.
It was a homemade paddle made of Hoosier grown hardwood that looked like a long, narrow hoe: a flat piece of oak with holes bored in it, nailed and braced to a long 2×2 handle. “Stir it in a figure 8,” Grandpa would tell me. “That way the tomatoes won’t scorch.”
And as soon as he’d leave to go back to his harvesting chore in the garden and Grandma saw me alone she’d yell across the yard, “Don’t let those tomatoes burn. Keep a stirrin’ ’em, Curtie Boy.”
Grandma was the only one who could get away with calling me that.
In kidtime, after what seemed like hours of figger 8’s, the womenfolk (mothers, aunts and cousins alike) would come around with long handled kitchen pots, dip into the copper caldron and quickly walk away with a batch of steaming tomato pulp, skins, seeds and juice.
There were several colanders in action around the picnic table which was now serving as juice production facility. It was here that, as the juice was strained from the near boiling pulp, all of the latest news of family and friends was shared around the table with whoever might or might not be interested. Bursts of laughter would routinely interrupt the usual chatterings.
The clatter around the juicing table now reminds me of a song from “The Music Man”. “Pick a little, talk a little. Pick a little, talk a little. Cheep, Cheep, Cheep, Talk a lot, pick a little more…”
Though I occasionally was drafted into the colander service, I found that I would be better off staying at my copper kettle post and stirring. That way, I didn’t know if they were talking about me or not. And I preferred it that way. When you’re the only 12 year-old boy in a group of womenfolk, their questions of girlfriends and such talk is downright embarrassing. So I just avoided their klatch.
With the stirring and colandering done, the women packed large pots of warm, fresh squeezed tomato juice into the basement where Grandma had set up the canning factory. It was then my job to feed what was left of the tomatoes to the chickens. I was pretty popular with the ladies out in that chicken yard.
All I know about the canning process is that the jars had to be clean and sterilized or the tomato juice would spoil.
And there was always those few jars that didn’t seal and they, thankfully, could be consumed as soon as they were cool. The texture and hickory-smoke laced taste of tomato juice made over an open fire is still is one of my favorites.
Today I have found that a few shakes of liquid smoke into my glass of tomato juice (with maybe a wee bit of vodka) gets my memory bank longing for the days of my youth on Grandpa & Grandma’s farm
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“It’s a long, long while from May to December,
But the days grow short when you reach September.”
–Max Anderson