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Tomato Time

It begins like the dawn of a summer day with a faint flush of pink. Then the colors ripen, and as far as the eye can see – or at least to the end of the row – a crimson tide spreads across the land. It's August at Elam, also known as tomato time.

To borrow a line from Dickens, it is “the best of times and the worst of times.” Anyone who has ever manned a canner of ketchup at midnight understands. When tomatoes are ready they're ready RIGHT NOW!

Time, in other words, waits for no man, woman, or tomato.

Despite this summer's record heat and lack of rain our tomato crop has been a good one, and the ranks of canned tomatoes, tomato salsa, and tomato soup on the pantry shelf continue to grow. With the onset of August arrives I find myself in a tomato time warp, a place filled to the brim with buckets and baskets, pints and quarts.

“I think I can” is no idle phrase in August.

And so I can.

A serious canning session begins the night before with the gathering of jars from attic or barn. My cats, who always enjoy a busy day in the kitchen, exchange glances. Their twitching whiskers proclaim the news – tomorrow is canning day!

Bright and early the next morning canning commences. As I search for lids and jar rings, Sophie wraps her tail neatly around her plump body and settles down on the kitchen island to watch. The ceiling fan (reminiscent of my grandmother's ancient rotary fan) stirs the air and sets a pleasant tempo for the work at hand.

As I quarter firm ripe fruit into the canning kettle a snapshot from my collection of gardening memories comes into focus, one of my earliest memories on the farm (prior to acquiring a greenhouse when my spouse took over the plant raising duties): It is a drizzly March day. Pulling my collar tight against the biting wind I carry a pot of “rich dirt” from the chicken pen to the back porch. I add a thin layer of potting soil and open the package of seeds. Tiny gold seeds, as light as the breeze on a summer morning, spill out. As always I marvel at the future harvest that I hold in my hand. As I tamp the tiny seeds into the still-chilly soil the dreary day seems a bit brighter.

The sun is shining brightly as I place the canner on the stove to process. As I begin to assemble ingredients for tomato soup, a little tomato rolls off the counter and onto the floor. In a flash Lily attacks the wild tomato, which quickly succumbs in a puddle of tomato pulp. I seem to remember reading that cats don't laugh, but Sophie and Luna certainly appear to be snickering at the pesky kitten. I can't help smiling myself as I wipe down cat and counter before resuming my work.

As I ladle hot soup into pint jars another scene replays in my mind: It is early May and the sun bathes my shoulders and the earth beneath my feet with a welcoming warmth. The tomato plants are gangly adolescents now that bob and bow on a breeze that sends winter leaves skittering across freshly turned furrows. I work my way down the row, carefully placing tomato cages over each plant. Sylvester stretches fore and aft, spreads his toes in the inviting earth, and saunters over to inspect my work. With a flip of his tail my garden helper suggests that caging tomatoes is a waste of time. He is, however, willing to stay in case I dig up something worthwhile – like a mouse.

The “ding” of the kitchen timer brings me back to the task at hand. Carefully I place a dozen sparkling red jars on the counter to cool.

I tend to sparkle myself when I look at them.

Sophie, Luna, and Kiki circle my feet, hopeful that all the kitchen activity will lead to a snack. No Friskies forthcoming, they settle in for an afternoon nap.

Feeling a bit frisky myself, I announce, “It's time to salsa!”

The cats are not impressed. They are, in fact, already asleep.

As I choose and chop ingredients my mind fast forwards to a future scene: It is a cold January day. Snowflakes drift lazily past the kitchen window as I go to the pantry for a jar of tomato soup. Popping open the lid, I experience the same heady aroma that fills the kitchen this warm August night. A cold wind howls around the house, and the snow falls faster. As I wait for the soup to warm I browse through a seed catalog that came in the mail. Soon spring will arrive along with another gardening year. The cycle of the seasons, tomato-wise at least, will have come full circle.

A circle of cats vocalizing their interest in dinner snaps my attention back to the present. Cats may not care for tomatoes, but they value little round cans bearing Friskies. Contentedly cleaning their whiskers, Sophie, Kiki, Luna, and Lily reflect that approval on a daily basis.

Preserving food, or preserving summer as I prefer to think of it, is a process that I, like my cats, enjoy. A bounty of summer-ripe produce, the lazy swish of a fan for atmosphere, a cat or two for company, and a host of memories – what better way to spend a summer day!

One of my father's favorite expressions from the Depression years was “eat what you can, and what you can't – can,” It still applies.

As long as I can, I intend to do just that.