By Stephanie Stamm
My parents grew the best tomatoes in the world. We didn’t know what kind they were. My uncle had gotten the seeds somewhere, and he passed some on to my parents, who continued to save seeds from year to year. We called them “Stamm Tomatoes,” because no one else around had tomatoes like them. They could have been German Johnsons or German Queens. Like those heirloom varieties, they were knobby, meaty, juicy, and a pink-red.
When tomatoes were in season, we had fresh sliced tomatoes with every meal. One of my family’s favorite breakfasts (or breakfasts for dinner) was biscuits, tomatoes, and gravy. Not being much of a gravy fan, I opted for just tomatoes and biscuits.
We always had a huge garden. So, in addition to eating fresh tomatoes and giving tomatoes away, we spent days canning tomatoes. My mother would peel, core, and quarter the tomatoes, stuff the quarters into jars with some salt, and then process them in boiling water. I learned that the raw tomatoes had to be packed tightly in the jars. They shrink during processing, so loose packing meant jars of tomatoes floating in liquid, instead of jars with near-uniform, red gems snugged closely together from bottom to neck. I don’t recall my mother ever entering her canned tomatoes in the county fair competition, but if she had, she could have won some ribbons.
When I was a child, my favorite part of tomato canning was making tomato juice. The less perfect tomatoes were cut into chunks, peels and all, and dropped into five gallon buckets. When a bucket was half to three-quarters full, I got to dive in. Well, not all of me; just my arms. What could be better as a child than not only being allowed but encouraged to make a squishy mess? Of course, it had to stay in the bucket, but still…. This wasn’t work; it was play. I squeezed fistfuls of tomatoes until I was above my elbows in juice and pulp. My arms got a little itchy, but it was worth it. My mom then cooked the squashed tomatoes, pressed the hot pulp through a sieve to remove the peels, poured the juice into jars, and processed them.
During the non-tomato seasons, we could always go to the cellar to find bright jars of tomatoes and juice for making soups, chilis, spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes, or tomato dumplings, or for simply eating or drinking straight from the jar.
Those tomatoes spoiled me for any average tomatoes. The uniform round, red things from the grocery store never measure up. Every year, I eagerly await tomato season, when I can find heirloom varieties at my local farmers market. And though I’ve found some wonderful ones, I still haven’t found any that quite match the ones I remember.
German Queen image from http://www.cherrygal.com/tomatoindgermanqueenheirloomseeds2010-p-13184.html
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I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:
I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: