“I have two things I care about – love and work.
And to me they are very Italian and very enduring themes.”
– Adriana Trigiani, The Italian American Podcast, Episode 7
And then late August comes, full of its heat and humidity, and we know it’s time to pull out the wide steel drums, the plastic crates stacked full of clean Mason jars, the old bed sheets and blankets, and the comically large wooden spoons, because it’s time to jar the tomatoes. Clear your schedule for the day, and come on over. We’re starting at 6 am, and we won’t be done until the late afternoon. It’s a lot of work, a lot of sweat, a lot of lifting and stirring, boiling and hot glass, but for some reason, even still, you want to be there….
Of the many traditions I was fortunate to grow up with, the jarring of tomatoes remains the most dear, not just to me, but to many of the Italian Americans I know, including my cousins, siblings, and even the next generation of nieces and nephews. Italian Americans have never been afraid of hard work, but the fact that this particular work is something everyone actually looks forward to is revealing: It’s the ardor for community and la famiglia that makes it so.
Once a year, or, – depending on how many bushels of tomatoes you get and how many pots of sauce you make throughout the months to come – once every two years, your family and friends (who might as well be family) have a reason to get together, to work together, to enjoy the day together. And, of course, to joke and laugh together.
That is the true heart of jarring tomatoes. That is why it’s such a beloved ritual that even teenagers and small children want to be a part of.
It captures the heart of the Italian-American ethos: Love and work.
The tradition is a precious part of my life and the life of my family. So much so that since Anthony and I first started the podcast back in November, making an episode out of “doing the tomatoes,” as we say, has always been on our radar. We were waiting for this time of year to come around to do so. Yet, as the day approached, I started to feel something I haven’t felt before in the course of producing our shows – I didn’t want to make an episode out of it.
At first I couldn’t put my finger on the resistance, but as I thought more about it, I realized it was because of this very preciousness that I no longer felt the desire to create an episode. Like anything precious, I wanted to handle it carefully and with respect.
Today, Sunday, the day this post is published, my family will be jarring our tomatoes, and I don’t want to be separate from them, holding a microphone, asking them questions, thinking on how to capture the best footage so that you, our beloved listener, could experience a terrific episode, as well as be entertained. To tell you the truth, I just want to be a part of it, the way I’ve always been a part of it. I want to be with my family, not watching them. I want to participate in the tradition, not analyze it.
Even more so, this year, there is a solemnity to doing the tomatoes, because it’s the first year we are doing them without my aunt, Josephine, who recently passed away (we talk about her in Episode 5). This is a painful marker, which feels similar to the pain we experience celebrating a first Christmas or a birthday after the death of a loved one.
I guess some things do still remain sacred, it seems, even in this day and age.
So while it breaks my heart to think of those of you who only remember this tradition from your childhood because you no longer participate in it, or those of you who never had a chance to experience it, and as much as I want to give that gift to you, I’m hoping that my choice to keep it semi-private gives you an inkling of how powerful this tradition is.
With that in mind, I’ll be creating a step-by-step video from footage gathered today on how to jar tomatoes, with the hope that you’ll start the tradition yourself, with your own family and friends. But we’ll only be sharing this video with a select group – our newsletter subscribers. If you’ve already joined us, keep an eye out in your inbox in the coming week for the video. If you haven’t already subscribed, and would like to be a part of our community, click here to do so.
I’ve always been my family’s documentarian, so I’ll still be gathering bits of audio and video, the way I would film and record any family gathering. But if you want to be a part of the day in real time and fully, you’re going to have to come over in your old clothes you’re not afraid to ruin, your hair tied up in a hat or bandana, and spend the day with us, working and laughing. And of course, at the end of it all, enjoying a meal of pasta with sauce cooked from freshly picked tomatoes. The best kind of meal – with family, after a day of good, honest, hard work.
– Dolores Alfieri