i've kept a journal for most of the years I've been gardening. I'm a habitual scribbler, jotting down the triumphs and flops of each season that I always feel pretty sure I'd remember anyway: that the Collective Farm Woman melons were surprisingly prissy; that the Dolly Partons produced such whopping tomatoes the plants fell over. Who could forget any of that? Me, as it turns out. Come winter when it's time to order seeds again, I always need to go back and check the record.
Over years, trends show up. One is that however jaded I may have become, winter knocks down the hollow stem of worldliness and I start each summer again with expectations as simple as a child's. The first tomato of the season brings me to my knees. Its vital stats are recorded in my journal with the care of a birth announcement: It's an Early Girl! Four ounces! June 16! Over the next few weeks I note the number, size, and quality of the different tomato varieties as they begin to come in: two Green Zebras, four gorgeous Jaune Flammés, one single half-pound Russian Black. I note that the latter wins our summer's first comparative taste test—a good balance of tart and sweet, with strong spicy notes.
By early August I've shifted from numbers to pounds. We bring in each day's harvest in plastic grocery sacks that we heave onto a butcher's scale in our kitchen, recording the weight on a notepad before moving on to processing. At this point, we officially move beyond hobby scale.
Two years ago, when my family set out to eat only food grown close to home for a year, our quarter-acre garden figured prominently in our plans. How many pumpkins would we eat in 12 months? How many jars of pickles? My one area of confidence was tomatoes: We couldn't have too many.
When did we realize we were headed for a harvest of one-fifth of a ton? We had a clue when tomatoes took over the countertops end to end, front edge to backsplash. No place to set down a dirty dish. The sink stayed full of red orbs bobbing in their wash water. The stovetop stayed covered with baking sheets of halved tomatoes waiting for their turn in the oven. The cutting board stayed full; the knives kept slicing.
We process and put up almost every kind of fruit and vegetable in late summer, but somehow it's the tomatoes, with their sunny flavor and short shelf life, that demand the most attention. We wish for them in leisure, and repent in haste. Rare is the August evening when I'm not slicing, canning, roasting, and drying—often all at the same time. Tomatoes take over our life. When my daughter Lily was too young to help, she had to sit out some of the season at the kitchen table with her crayons while she watched me work. The summer she was five, she wrote and illustrated a small book titled Mama the Tomato Queen, which fully exhausted the red spectrum of her Crayola box.
By September, all those gorgeous, red-filled jars lining the pantry shelf make me happy. They look like early valentines, and they are, for a working mother. A jar of our spaghetti sauce, a box of pasta, a grate of cheese will save us come dinnertime. I think of canning as fast food, paid for in time up front.
That price isn't the drudgery that many people think. In high season I give over a few Saturdays to canning with family or friends. A steamy kitchen full of women talking about our stuff is not so different from your average book group, except that we end up with jars of future meals.
Canning is not just for farmers and gardeners, either. Putting up summer produce is a useful option for anyone who can buy local produce from markets. It is also a kindness to the farmers who will have to support their families in December on whatever they sell in August. They can't put their unsold tomatoes in the bank. Buying now, in quantity, improves the odds of these farmers returning with more next summer.
If canning seems like too much of a stretch, there are other ways to save vegetables purchased in season, in bulk. Twenty pounds of tomatoes will cook down into a pot of sauce that fits into five one-quart freezer boxes, good for one meal each. (Be warned, the fragrance of your kitchen will cause innocent bystanders to want to marry you.) Tomatoes can even be frozen whole; once they've hardened you can dump them together into large bags (they'll knock against each other like croquet balls), and withdraw a few at a time for winter soups and stews. Having gone nowhere in the interim, they will still be local in February.