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Rerun: September’s Process

(This is a rerun of something I wrote a year ago at about this time.  I wanted to end today on a bit more of a hopeful note.)

Ask the farmer to transfer the tomatoes from their box to a bunch of bags. Wince as he packs the bags too full; they’ll crush easier. Carefully tuck them into the cart, and start home, wincing again as you hit each tiny rut and bump in the sidewalk.   Grab a bag of ice as you pass the deli on your street.  Wince again, and add a groan, when you get home and realize that what with the cart, the bags of tomatoes, and the ice, you’re going to have to make more than one trip up and down the four flights of stairs to your place.  Sigh and get to it.

My local farmers’ market has a “canners’ special” each year – a bushel of tomatoes, sold cheap to those wanting to put things up. I’ve been picking up a box every year for about five years now – it seems to be just enough to last yearlong, with about a dozen cans of tomatoes and a couple jars of fresh tomato juice eacn time, and the process is messy and annoying enough that I only do want to do it once.

Three years ago I got into the habit of scheduling this ordeal for the anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks.

Clean out the sink first.  You’ll need an empty sink for the dishes after, and you’ll also need it for the ice water bath when you’re peeling the tomatoes.

Weigh out your tomatoes, laying them into little clusters on the dining room table – six pounds each. Save aside the ones that crushed on the way, to make tomato sauce and salsa to keep in the fridge right away.  Throw out the couple of fungus-y tomatoes that managed to sneak into the bushel.  Fetch enough empty jars from that top shelf in the kitchen, and dig through the pile of canning supplies trying to find enough lids.  Steal a couple from the teeny jars you have in the closet.

Dig out the big stock pot you got from your cousins 20 Christmases ago. Tuck in the first of your canning jars, and fill the whole thing, jars and all, with water.  Set that to boil while you dig out the other two big soup pots – fill one with water, and start that boiling while you fill up the sink and dump in part of the bag of ice.

Different cabinet now – dig out the big mixing bowl and balance a colander on top.  Shuffle the bowl and pans around on your counter while you’re waiting for all the water to boil.   It’s already getting hot.  Look at how many dishes this is already using.  Sigh.

Canning is just complicated and frustrating enough to lure me from the thoughts I’d otherwise have this day; it’s busywork, keeping me at a low level of distraction and giving me something else to be cranky at.  It also gives me an excuse to shut myself away from people.  But it’s not so intricate that I can’t recover if I do, despite myself, slip into memory.

I was in New York City that day; I was on “standby” with my temp agency, dressed and waiting just in case they got a last-minute call so they could send me right out.   So I was at home that morning, and I lived close enough to the Towers that I heard the impact of both planes as they hit.

The reason I was on standby, though, was because the day before I’d missed a call from my agency asking if I was available for something starting on the 11th.  By the time I called them back, they’d already given it to someone else.  It wasn’t until the evening of the 11th that I remembered that my agency had a lot of clients in the Twin Towers – so it was very possible that if I’d taken that job, I’d have been one of the people in the Towers that day.

Drop the first few tomatoes into the smaller pot of boiling water.  Realize you forgot to set a timer, curse and do so.  Wait.  Start madly scooping tomatoes into the sink ice bath when 30 seconds is (sort of) up.  Wait thirty more seconds – more or less – and grab a tomato from the sink, juggling it in your hands a little.  Still hot.  But the skin is fortunately slipping off.  Peel it over the colander and dig out the tough core with your fingers, dropping skin and seeds and tomato goodge into it as you do. Crush the meat in your hands and dump it into the second pot.

Notice, as you reach for a second tomato, that you’ve squirted juice onto the side of the fridge.  Swear.  Try to dig the peel off the second tomato.  This one’s more stubborn.  Swear again.  And then again when you squirt tomato down your shirt front.

Look at the remaining tomatoes in the sink, and then over at the 14 pounds you haven’t even gotten to yet.  Swear again.

Sometimes my not having been in the Towers feels like a copout.  We hear a lot from the First Responders and their families; the next of kin of the victims; the military.  We don’t hear as much about the experiences of the ordinary schlubs like me – people whose experience with 9/11 was only in coping with the city’s aftermath.  I didn’t know anyone in the Towers, I wasn’t there myself, no one I know died.  What’s my problem?

But even if no person I know died, the place was badly wounded.  For three months I tried to ignore the smell of smoke hanging over everything – the fire at Ground Zero was still going, and that meant that something was still fueling that fire, and I didn’t want to think too hard about just what that fuel may be.  I also tried to ignore the “Missing Person” posters that blanketed every single wall and bulletin board and lamppost with their futility.  And the shrines in front of each police precinct and firehouse, a small pile of dead flowers and burnt-out bodega candles clustered against the side of the building near a taped-up few pictures of smiling cops or firemen.  You saw these things ever once in a while before, of course, when one guy or another was killed in action.  But this time it was every precinct that had one, every fire house that had one.

The president and the mayor were trying to tell us all to go about our business and get back to normal.  But there were some long and lingering signs pointing to the fact that things were not normal.  Not at all.

The pot full of jars is boiling, so start simmering the crushed tomato on the stove and start fishing jars out of the pot, carefully dumping the water back in.  Dole a spoonful of citric acid and a spoon of salt into each jar.  Get the idea to tuck sprigs of oregano into a couple jars and clip some off your oregano plant in the window.

Ladle the tomato carefully into each jar.  Swear again when you overfill one and have to scoop some out.  Wipe all the jar rims.  Start to wipe the counter while you’re at it but then realize you’re just getting started so why bother.  Screw the lids on each jar, holding each one gingerly from the heat.  Grab each jar with the funky tong thingies you got just for canning jars, praying you don’t drop anything as you carefully lower them back into the still-boiling stock pot.

Set the timer for a half hour when the stock pot’s full.  Consider sitting down for a bit, but sigh and start peeling the next pile of tomatoes.

Even in the weeks immediately after the attacks, I found myself more angry at other Americans than I was at the attackers.  My friend Colin and I had a discussion shortly after, about “what would you do if Osama Bin Laden was in this room right now?”  And honestly, the most I would have done is smacked him like Cher did to Nic Cage in Moonstruck and asked, “what the hell was that?”  Even today, I can’t entirely escape the thought that Bin Laden and the attackers were not sane.  I would no more blame them for acting while under the influence of extreme religious fundamentalism than I would blame a rabid dog – neither knew any better.

However, our country did know better when we started a war under false pretenses with the wrong damn country, one which we are still fighting today.

Even worse are the politicians who preach platitudes about supporting the brave first responders who risked their lives during the attacks – but then turn around and cancel bills meant to give those first responders support for their health care.  Or the regular people online who blanket Facebook and Twitter and such every September 11th with Photoshopped pictures of the Twin Towers and eagles and flags and the “Never Forget” slogan in sparklefont – but then go back to slagging New Yorkers as “libtards” the very next day.  Both those camps are people who are exploiting the worst day of my life to make themselves look good to others, and I have very little patience for that.

The person I got the angriest at, though, was a man who came up to me on the street two days after the attacks.  I was standing near my neighborhood’s local mosque, and he was walking past and saw me there, came over to me, and nodding at the mosque, said, “so this is where the snake pit is, huh?”

Never before in my life have I been as angry as another person as I got at that man.  “This is a HOUSE of WORSHIP!” I roared at him.  “HOW DARE YOU!”

“It’s a SNAKE PIT!” he shouted back; but he was backing away from me.  We shouted back and forth at each other a few seconds more, him calling the mosque a snake pit and me scolding him for his prejudice; but he was backing away down the street and finally just ran off, driven off by my rage.

And it was pure rage. Rage which still comes faintly back to me when I write about that moment thirteen years later.

Carefully lift the processed jars out of the stock pot.  Worry at one that hisses a bit.  Check the lid; it’s a good seal.  Resolve to keep an eye on it anyway.  Top up the water and drop in the next round of jars.

Carry the jars over to the window by your oregano.  Linger there a few seconds each time you do, to catch the breeze for just a minute before returning to the hot kitchen.  Fiddle again with that jar you heard hissing.  Hear one of the jars clink in the stock pot and run back to make sure it didn’t break.

Food was one thing that helped me cope during those first few weeks.  Cat food, mostly.

I got into a bad headspace after a week; I didn’t have work right away, and so I was stuck with nothing to do, which left way too much time for me to let myself get caught up in endless mental rabbit-track loops replaying what had happened.  I’d either sit in my apartment in a weird fugue state, or do things like lock myself in my room and stay awake for 48 hours reading Lord Of The Rings cover to cover.

But while I was in a bad mental place, my cat Zach was not.  War or peace, political strife or good days – it was all the same to him.  All he cared about was food – Zach was an enormous glutton.  And two hours before his dinner, he would start asking after it, with his loud and strangely nasal “Miaou!”s.  In the weeks after the attack, his “Miaou!” was the only thing loud enough to finally pierce the voices in my own head, and rouse me to get up and off the couch and give him a scoop of kibble – and oh, wait, while I’m up I maybe should get a sandwich or something, shouldn’t I?….

And so while Zach ate and I numbly nibbled, I thought about how Zach didn’t care what had happened; all he cared about was that he was alive and he wanted to stay that way – and that I was alive, and it was my job to feed him.  I had a responsibility to keep him fed – and while I was at it, I had to keep me fed too.

I was alive, and I had to keep living for the people who couldn’t.

Chop the tomatoes that crushed on the way home.  Dump them into a Tupperware container with the not-enough-to-fill-a-jar tomato meat and stick it in the fridge to deal with later.   Mix up the skins and seeds in the colander with your hand to finish straining the juice.  Empty the colander into the trash.  Drop the colander in the trash as you do. Swear again.

Get that really big measuring cup and measure the juice from the bowl.  Just over two pints; dump the water out of the tomato bath pot and dump in the juice.  Bring that to a boil while you get two more jars.  This time it’s easier to fill the jars – it’s all juice.  Much more pourable.  Save the extra aside.  Seal those up too and set the juice jars inside the stock pot.   These get fifteen minutes; take a very deep breath, summon your courage and grab a paper towel to start finally wiping down the countertops and get going on the dishes. Pause halfway through to get a rocks glass from your “bar” in the living room.

Food was a place to start living again.

I’ve always been an active cook, but I picked it up after the attacks.  Especially the canning – it started as a whim, making jam and then liqueur, and then when I moved to Brooklyn I tried canning a couple pounds of tomatoes just to see if I could.

I now routinely make jam and applesauce and pickles every year, mainly just to cope with the bounty I get from a CSA; when I know I can’t eat something fast enough, it either gets canned or frozen.  I hate to waste things, so this kind of canning is more salvage; I’m stopping it from going bad so I can have it on hand to use in something.  Someday.  At some point.

Tomatoes are a little different – it’s the only thing I can as a planning-ahead thing.  I cook a lot of Cajun and Italian food, and tomato soup is one of my comfort foods, so tomatoes are a staple, and this is my big annual stocking-up.  I boasted to my mother once that I haven’t had to buy a can of Del Monte or Contadina from the supermarket in four years.

There’s also something comforting about that big stockpile; about opening the hall closet where I keep all my canned stuff, and seeing those jars stacked up.  It’s a bounty – the means to make a years’ worth of some of my favorite foods whenever I choose, and knowing that because these are really good tomatoes, it’s also going to be really good food.

But it’s also a promise and a commitment and a celebration.  It’s my own declaration that I’m still here, thirteen years on, to eat those tomatoes.  And share them with others who are also here.  Canning on September 11th each year is my way of celebrating that I’m here, and signing on to stay here.

Bring the juice jars over to the windowsill, and finally turn off the stove.  Leave the last pot to soak, measure out a bit of vodka and dump that into the glass with the balance of the juice.  Forgive yourself for having to look up how to make a Bloody Mary.  Finish mixing it and bring it to the chair by the window with a heavy sigh.

Look at the jars of tomatoes.  Twelve of them this year, a neat row of jars with swirls of orangey-red. Twelve meals’ worth of future soups and chilis and jambalaya.

Think about jambalaya a moment, the play of the smoky Andouille and sweet pepper on your tongue.

Take a sip of your drink.  You overdid it with the vodka a tiny bit, but the blinding freshness of the tomato comes through.

Feel the breeze through the window, a relief after the hot kitchen.  Look out the window.  You’re looking east, so you can’t see the sun, but the sky is colored for sunset anyway, the blue tinging to pink and lavender.  Sip your drink again and look at the sky.

Then back inside to your home, one which you’ve filled with friends whom you’ve fed with tomatoes in years past.  Remember one meal, all of you sitting around the kitchen table and laughing.

Look back out at the sky again, thinking of them.  Thinking of life.

You are alive.

 Breathe.

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