Small Space. Big Life.

Tomatoes and mindfulness

Yesterday I spent about five hours turning thirty or so pounds of our home-grown tomatoes into tomato sauce.

I got nine pint jars out of the deal (and some of my kitchen back; the tomatoes were taking over). I enjoyed the process, but wondered at the end if the trade-off in time and cost was worth it (this sauce is significantly more expensive than the store-bought equivalent, if far superior in taste). It’s also much easier (and takes much less time) to buy tomato sauce at the grocery store.

There are some easy, common answers to this question, which everyone who preserves their own food has trotted out at least once or twice: When I can my own food, I know that the tomatoes are organic; I know that they were processed properly and that the glass jars I use to can them reduces our exposure to BPA (which is often used in the lining of foods canned in commercial metal cans). I know that they weren’t trucked hundreds or thousands of miles, so their carbon footprint is probably smaller. I know that they use recycled materials (I re-use canning jars and have some that are decades old). I can season them to my liking. They taste better. I take satisfaction in doing something for myself, for the small strike for greater food security and independence that this action allows me.

But as I sat here today, looking at these nine jars of tomato sauce, I realized something else: They represent a tremendous amount of work.

I started the tomato seeds and tended them for weeks.

I hand-dug the beds of the garden that they were planted in.

I hauled compost, mulch, and manure to enrich the planting beds.

I made cages out of wire to plant each tomato plant in, so that the gophers wouldn’t get them.

I staked the plants as they grew (not well, but that’s a different post).

I watered them consistently, reliably, and thoughtfully (a 2-hour-each-week task).

I weeded them.

I harvested them. And harvested them. And harvested them. And we are still harvesting them.

I canned them. It took me five hours to process enough tomatoes to make these 9 pint jars. (Sorting, washing, quartering, cooking, pureeing, straining, concentrating, putting the sauce into jars, hot-water-bath-processing, and labeling). I’ll be quicker the next time I do it, but it will still take time.

And I will eat them.

This is a long process with a lot of steps. None of them are guaranteed successes. They all take time. But that time has to be taken by someone, somewhere. When I buy tomatoes from the store, that time is taken by a faceless farmer in a field full of nothing but tomatoes, using equipment  and machinery (or, less happily, migrant labor) to produce tomatoes that are trucked to a facility where they’re processed en masse, and then that product is labeled and boxed and trucked to a store where workers put it on the shelves and hope it sells before the expiration date, when they have to discard it. This is how we feed a lot of people very cheaply. I see none of this work, but the work is still being done somewhere, and the waste stream still exists.

When I can tomatoes myself, I am the one doing the work, and most of it, from start to finish. I make other foods — bread, pasta, yogurt, jam — but only with tomatoes do I get the chance to provide the raw materials as well as the finished product. This makes them very satisfying. It also makes me very, very aware of how much effort, energy, and time it takes to provide food, even a small amount of food. It makes me more aware of the challenges of modern-day subsistence farmers, for example, or my farming ancestors, who fed their families as well as their communities with their farms. As I water, pick, and can the tomatoes, I’m reminded that providing food can be uncertain, hot, dirty, tiring work. There is joy and pleasure in it, too — the promise and orderliness of a freshly-planted garden, the smell of tomato vines under the sun, the thrill of watching plants catapult out of the ground, the anticipation of the slow turn of fruit from small to large to green to red. It’s lovely, wonderful, miraculous and plenty of hard work.

And with each bite of luscious, deep-red sauce this winter I’ll be reminded that I cannot take any of the food on my plate for granted, no matter whose labor is involved.


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