Tomato Sauce: A Family Tradition

tomato sauce
Photo: Thanthima Limsakul/123rf

It is my favorite time of year at my mom’s house. It’s a scene that has played itself out for generations in my family—from Sicily, to Brooklyn, to Long Island. The intoxicating aroma of tomatoes and basil fills the air.

This year is very different, as my dad is not here to oversee the process with his watchful eye, but this tradition keeps him alive in my heart. I can still see him cleaning and chopping the tomatoes, getting them ready to add to the giant pot that sits outside on a burner. His distinguished white hair, soft Sicilian kissed skin, standing under the large umbrella looking over the long table filled with luscious, ripe tomatoes. He’s calm, taking his time, treating each tomato as though it’s the only one as my mom runs around chaotically preparing everything else that goes into making a delicious jar of sauce. With everything he did in his life, he always enjoyed the journey, never rushing to get to the destination. He made the best of every moment of his almost 95 years. Last year was the final time my dad would be here during this wonderful sauce-making tradition. Lucky for him, his bed was positioned directly under the window where the boiling pot of tomatoes sat just outside his room. I’d go in and out of the house asking him if he could smell the delicious aroma. He’d smile and say, “yes, so wonderful.” I know my dad was able to close his eyes and be right there with us, making the sauce together outside. He didn’t show any sadness. To me it seemed as though he had his fill of enjoying the process and now it was my turn.

This is a family tradition for us. My parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews all look forward to this day every year. My girls have been part of the sauce-making festivities since they were little babies. In the past, they were on my hip or taking a nice summer nap in their stroller. As they grew older they would help clean the tomatoes while playing with them. This year though, they were all hands on. At one point there was nothing for me to do, as my kids had completely taken over the process. While I missed doing some of the steps, it was quite satisfying just sitting back and watching my own kids go through the process—yet another generation adopting the old world traditions kept alive by my parents, and their parents before them.

We don’t jar one or two bottles! We make the tomato sauce on a large scale, some years canning over 200 jars of tomato sauce, but this can certainly be done on a smaller scale with fresh grown tomato from your own yard if you choose.

Here’s the process:

We use plum tomatoes (usually between 5 and 6 bushels) purchased from our local farm stands.

Usually the end of August or beginning of September is when the tomatoes are ready for saucing.

The mason jars need to be thoroughly washed and dried completely.

Wash and dry the tomatoes (we wash them outside in big plastic tubs and then lay them out in the hot sun to dry).

Using a small knife, cut the tomatoes into fours and then squash them in a large pot with your hands.

Add chopped onions.

Bring to a boil (if your using an enormous outdoor pot like ours this process can take up to 2 hours).

Pass tomatoes through electric tomato strainer—this machine helps separate the tomatoes’ skins and seeds from the juice and pulp quickly.

Return pureed sauce back to pot.

Bring to a boil once again.

Add basil and salt to taste.

Scoop sauce into mason jars using a funnel to help the process along.

Lid the jars and store at room temperature until ready to be eaten.

This year, I think we did my father proud! He wasn’t here in person, but every red tomato we cut, every stir of sauce, every jar filled, and every lid turned honored his memory. He was here.

Photo: Annamaria Weiss
Photo: Annamaria Weiss

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