If there is one fruit that stands out in my mind as the poster child for late summer, it is the tomato. It bursts upon the scene in July, crowding farmers markets and restaurant menus.
With the possible exception of my sister, people I know can't seem to get enough of tomatoes. We slice them, dice them, pickle them, stew them, can them, stuff them, and do just about everything decent and indecent one can think of to them. The Spanish are so overwhelmed by them that the strip down and throw them at each other in what is possibly the largest single-item, annual food fight in the world.
Then suddenly, like all good things, their season comes to an end. The Spaniards clean up their mess, the marketeers start pimping other fruit like persimmons (which, to the extremely myopic, might look like anemic tomatoes), the rest of us move on to the next ripe thing that catches our eye, and summer just goes away.
For most people, anyhow.
I seem to know a lot of folks who are doing their damnedest to bottle up enough summer to warm themselves and their loved ones in the upcoming colder months. For example, the gentlemen over at Hedonia recently processed 200 pounds of tomatoes and have offered their services to help friends do the same. And there are others. Thanks to the connective powers of Facebook, I was recently re-acquainted with a fellow named Kevin West, who is not only saving his tomatoes, but seemingly anything and everything that can be pickled, jammed, or otherwise preserved in a burst of worker ant hyper-activity.
After reading West's blog, I had to admit to myself that preserves and other "put-up" items are an enormous weakness of mine, in terms of both affection and, sadly, experience. Why have I never preserved anything beyond cherries for my winter Manhattans? I decided I must do something about both my inexperience and my bad habit of playing Aesop's grasshopper, while my worker ant friends toiled away with an eye toward winter. I decided to stop fiddling around and roll up my sleeves.
I gave my début into the society of preservationists some thought. I was going to bottle up my own bit of summer as brightly as a child collecting fireflies in a Mason jar. Noting that I owned a few empty Mason jars, but that fireflies are rather difficult to come by in San Francisco, I opted for tomatoes instead. Yes, I would create something that I thought best captured the essence of the tomato's warm, summer ripeness.
Why I chose ketchup is rather hard to say. I may have thought a lot about it, but I never said that my thinking wasn't fundamentally flawed.
While discussing this condiment that the Reagan administration legally defined as a vegetable with my friend Jay, I was wondering aloud about how it was made. "Well, Mikey, ketchup doesn't just happen, you know," implying that somebody has to make it. I decided to become that somebody who happens to make ketchup.
I bought the loveliest tomatoes I could find and waited for them to ripen. I pored over dozens of ketchup recipes, selectively hybridizing them the way growers create new strains of corn or pumpkins. I even added my own, secret touches to add depth. I would start small and see what became of my creation.
Three pounds of beautiful tomatoes, ripe and bursting with juice, sat on my cutting board. I saluted them and told them how lucky they were to be giving their lives for such a time-honored experiment in preservation before hacking them to pieces and throwing them into my dutch oven.
I added the shallots, the vinegar, and the spices neatly tied up in cheese cloth. I let them all stew, stirred them with care, puréed them, and sieved the sauce according to direction. Everything was perfect. I reduced it and then I reduced it some more. I added sugar and salt.
I took a bit of the sauce and spooned it onto a cold plate. Not as thick as the Heinz variety, not nearly as runny as soup. It had both the color and viscosity of arterial blood, which seemed to me the perfect metaphor of essence-- a sort of tomato life force. Three pounds of gorgeous tomatoes reduced to slightly more than half a cup of sauce.
And then I tasted it.
It tasted exactly like ketchup. Of course, that's what it was supposed to taste like. It just didn't taste much like summer. More correctly, it tasted as much of summer as the yellow mustard that typically sits next to the ketchup at an outdoor barbecue. I had taken those three pounds of tomatoes and turned them into next-to-nothingness. The concentration of tomato flavor was there, but it was obscured by the twelve or so other ingredients it shared space with. It was as though someone had taken their grandmother's ashes and dumped them into a giant ashtray. You know she's there but, unless she was known as a heavy smoker, her true essence has been lost in a mix of menthols and ultra-lights.
The experiment was not a total disaster, since I actually learned how to make ketchup-- mediocre ketchup, to be sure, but ketchup, nevertheless. Spending $30.00 to make a half cup of passable ketch, however, is not exactly cost-effective. In the future, I shall stick to my beloved Muir Glen brand and let them do all the work.
This doesn't mean I'm giving up on the canning and preserving idea. Quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, I have learned that I have a lot to learn about technique, subtlety, and, above all, patience.
In the meantime I will move on to other fruits that are ripe for experiment. I'll leave tomatoes alone, save to occasionally slice one and decorate it with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt until I have had my fill of them for the season. Then, when it's colder, I will beg my more productive friends for a jar or two of their efforts to tide me over until next year. That is, if they take pity upon a poor grasshopper like me.