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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I stare at the row of Mason jars on the cold room shelf. Lined up perfectly, all the same height, filled with crimson liquid and flecks of green. Passata. Jars filled with my parents’ homemade tomato sauce. This final batch was prepared in fall 2018, in the garage of my childhood home nestled in the east end of Montreal. Lovingly packaged in a box, with balled-up grocery-store flyers securing them, they were sent by my mother to my adopted home in Toronto. Every time I reach for a jar, I wonder: “Should I use one or not? Should I save them?” This shelf holds the last of it.

I have been saving these jars like precious treasures in my basement for years and tried in vain to find alternatives. Store-bought sauces? Too acidic, too sweet, too thin, too thick, not the right texture. Even if we find a sauce that is a reasonable facsimile, ultimately it just doesn’t taste right. It doesn’t taste like home. Even if I try to recreate it, it will never taste the same.

Growing up, I hated tomato season. Each September, early in the month, my parents would spend one weekend gathering bushels from a local tomato farm. Each bushel would get strewn on plastic tarps throughout the basement in order to ripen. To cross the room, we would need to tiptoe gingerly between the tomatoes. Invariably, I would lose my footing, squishing a cold, juicy tomato with my foot, letting it seep between my toes. The basement smelled like dirt and mud, heavy and wet.

My siblings got simultaneously roped into various tasks and chastised for not being helpful enough. When the proclamation came that the tomatoes were ready, it was time to haul them, one batch at a time, into the garage. There, we dunked them in the sink to be washed and then boiled in a huge vat over an open gas burner. This might have looked strange, except at that time my neighbourhood had many Italian families doing the same.

Once stewed, whole tomatoes were passed through a homemade contraption of my father’s invention: a food mill, attached by a rubber gasket to a small motor in order to automate the process of separating the sauce from the skins. Jars at the ready, three leaves of fresh basil waiting inside, we filled them, one pitcher at a time.

Then came the painful process of tightening jars, something my parents managed to do barehanded. I always singed the skin on my hands and painful blisters would form.

Then, rather than bending to the prevailing wisdom of boiling the jars to safely preserve the hard-earned liquid, my parents did something that appeared unsafe but had worked for years, perhaps generations. They lined a huge, plastic wine barrel, with a series of warm blankets and stacked the jars within it, wrapping all of them and covering it. Like tucking a child in at bedtime.

The jars would stew for a few days, sealing themselves with ambient heat. They would then be lined up on the cantina shelf, ready for use throughout the year. Surprisingly, none of us were ever felled with botulism. Thank God.

This was their fall practice not just for tomatoes, but also for Calabrian hot peppers, foraged mushrooms, garden eggplants. Then came the winter for making homemade sausages, prosciutto, capicollo and soppressata. I remember gagging when I saw the bucket of intestines soaking in the basement sink waiting to be stuffed, later forgetting about the vile contents of that vessel and happily eating away.

I loved it when my parents would season the huge bin of pork sausage they had retrieved from the butcher. Nothing was ever measured, seasoning was done by eye. We would fry up some of the sausage meat in a skillet and fill a fresh panino, tasting it before making the links. My parents expertly hand-tied the sausages, preparing to hang them in the cantina. My favourite job was taking a sharp sewing needle and pricking the sausages all over. These were my family’s rituals; seasonal and linked to generations of tradition.

My father, ever the forager, hunter and farmer, was debilitated by a chronic illness for several years before his death. He would be in and out of hospital throughout the winters, so it became increasingly difficult for him to keep up these customs. My mother, healthy and energetic as ever, continued on as best she could with some peripheral help from him. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, he spent the majority of his final months in hospital. Miraculously, in September of that year, he had a small reprieve from his recurring complications and Papa was home on the weekend that my brother-in-law decided to pick up the torch and continue the tradition of making sauce.

The memories and pictures I have from that day are glorious. My father, with his hands deep in a huge farm sink, washing tomatoes. Sitting on a folding chair in the garage, leaning back, one leg jutting out, instructing us from the sidelines. My mother, smiling big as she oversaw the whole family, children and grandchildren, coaching us to do things her way. It was a beautiful moment and one that was short-lived. My father died a few months later.

Which brings me back to my basement and a past I am not yet willing to let go of. I can’t hold on to these perishable jars forever. But it doesn’t make it any easier. Every time I go to reach for one, something stops me; a tether to those memories and an overwhelming dread of what it might mean to drain the last jar. My mother, ever practical, was visiting us recently and stared at the jars, incredulous.

“Why do you still have these? They will go to waste. You should just use them.”

What will it feel like to use that last jar? It will mean finally coming to terms with the end of an era, of a way of life that is a sweet memory and no longer a reality.

Who knows? Maybe it would be an impetus to start new traditions. Maybe the sauce won’t taste quite the same. Maybe my father would be sitting on his perch somewhere, telling me that’s not the way to do it, that I am doing it wrong. But if we tried to take this up and put our own stamp on it, perhaps it could be the first jar of a new series of traditions.

Dr. Giovanna Sirianni lives in Toronto.

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