One of my first memories of food is that of my mother jarring tomatoes in our small apartment in the South Bronx. I must have been about four years old… It was late summer, and the entire hallway, kitchen and living room were taken over by crates and boxes of tomatoes. As the days went by, the acidic smell of the tomatoes mixed with that of the moist cardboard, filled every corner. I remember her working so hard, late and into the night. I remember her setting me up for a late night bowl of cereal: my seat was a crate and my table a box of tomatoes. The smell permeated the taste of the sweet milk and cereal, changing it to something strange but not unpleasant.
Throughout the process my grandmother would stop by to inspect her work: the critical eye of the veteran scrutinizing the new foreigner, judging her for not even being Italian and trying to jar her own tomatoes…
As the days passed the smells changed with each step, and the boiling stage brought our small, 5th floor apartment from hot to unbearable. I was watching my mother and noticed how tired she seemed. I wondered why, why was she doing all this? So late one night, the light coming in from the kitchen pulling me from sleep, I shuffled in and asked.
“Why? Why baby? Tomorrow I will show you, I promise.”
The next day was a Sunday, and my mother made the typical Italian “Sunday dinner” for my family (including my aunt and uncle, my cousins and my grandparents): pasta with tomato sauce, meatballs, eggplant parmesan, pork and sausages. (Now, I doubt the memory I have of what that dinner tasted like came from that day, because my mother has made that meal many times since, and the description I am about to give most likely comes from the culmination of enjoying a lifetime of that deliciousness.)
The meal was perfect: a silky tomato sauce, ground meat sautéed in white wine and garlic; perfectly browned, moist and firm meatballs that melted in your mouth; pork so tender that the fork slid through it like warm butter…and so full of flavor that people’s eyes closed as they ate it; plump, juicy sausages that had just the right amount of crunch with a firm outer skin… The table was quiet. I looked around to see everyone just, eating. No talking, no commenting, just forks moving in plates. I think I remember my uncle make a kind of humming noise as he chewed… Finally my father put his fork down for a moment and said, “My god honey, this is delicious!” My grandmother offered no compliments, but her empty plate spoke volumes and she shuffled uncomfortably in her chair. My mother shot me a quick look and with a sparkle in her eye and responded, “it’s the sauce I jarred myself!”
My grandmother raised an eyebrow. My next bite tasted of satisfaction and victory.