In 1978 a movie entitled “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” was released. If you haven’t seen this musical and you’re really desperate and willing to just allow silliness to take over your life for about an hour and a half you should rent it. But this post is about a real-life horror story that took place in my own kitchen and nearly cost me my life.
Okay. That was hyperbole but the whole tomato sauce episode did cause me really intense pain and more frustration than I’ve had since I was raising two boys in diapers. And it all started, as most horror stories do, so innocently.
You see, my tomatoes weren’t ripening in large enough numbers to make canning them worth all the work so I decided to freeze them. They wouldn’t work for canned whole tomatoes or even diced tomatoes but they’d be fine for sauce. So I harvested them and washed them carefully and stored them in one gallon freezer bags.
The truth is I did more than just wash and freeze them. I fussed over every pound I collected. I weighed each bag at least twice and I counted and recounted the filled bags. I estimated how many pounds I would need to make pints and quarts of tomato sauce. I actually used a calculator as each bag was filled to determine how many jars of potential sauce were just waiting to be made. No miser fondling his gold was more obsessed than I.
And finally, after waiting for weeks to get down to canning my sauce I was ready. I’d drafted my husband to help with the heavy lifting and even persuaded my son to come over to be my photographer. I had a battle plan. I just didn’t expect to lose the war.
The morning that Operation Tomato Sauce was going to commence I woke up a couple of minutes after 4 o’clock. That wasn’t part of the plan but, since I was awake, I decided to start preparing the tomatoes. After all, it would take quite a while for it to reduce to a lovely thick sauce.
I lugged 56 pounds of tomatoes out of the freezer and into the kitchen. That alone should have been enough physical activity for the day but I was on a mission! I pulled out two large stock pots and filled one with very warm water. Frozen tomatoes practically peel themselves. I just had to dunk them in the warm water for a few seconds then gently squeeze the bottom end and watch the now naked tomato shoot out of the skin. It was actually kind of fun…for about 5 minutes. Then, even though I’d barely started working, fatigue and pain began to set in.
Instead of putting everything away I soldiered on. But I decided I’d cook the tomatoes down with the skins on and the seeds still tucked inside. After all, I would run the whole potful through my food mill and end up with a lovely puree. But already the killer tomato sauce was plotting to end my life. And it had devised a plan so twisted and so Machiavellian I didn’t even suspect my sauce was really the enemy.
I assembled the food mill, attaching the screen that should have filtered the skins and seeds and allowed the tomatoes to slide down the chute as puree. The tomatoes went into the hopper and I began to crank the handle. Immediately liquid shot out and hit me in the chest. So that’s how it was going to be. I adjusted the chute downward and began cranking again. More liquid, basically water, flowed down the chute but nothing else.
But wait! There was something more in the liquid! It wasn’t my much anticipated puree. Seeds were coming through the screen and sliding into the pool of water in the bowl. This was not what I wanted! I decided I’d have to use the berry screen because, apparently, I had very small tomato seeds and the bigger screen just couldn’t handle them.
I switched screens and filled the hopper again. This time I wasn’t getting any seeds but I still wasn’t getting any puree. And the handle became harder and harder to crank. I resisted the urge to set the kitchen on fire and walk away into a new, non-canning life.
Hauling my long-suffering husband to the kitchen I had him pour the cooked tomatoes into a sieve I held over a large bowl. I used a large bowl because I just knew that I was going to have a massive amount of puree very soon. The theory was that the skin and seeds would be caught and I could push the puree through the sieve into a bowl. Again, all that came through was liquid. Oh, there was a little of a substance vaguely resembling a thin puree, but mostly it was water.
I tried throwing everything into the food processor thinking it would have to cut everything into nothing but puree. Nope. Now I had water, seeds, and tiny bits of skin that looked as if the tomatoes had started to shed their winter coats.
If I wanted puree, I reasoned, and the reasoning was more of a semi-demented muttered ranting, I should use the puree setting on my blender. So another appliance was pressed into service and failed to save me. For the most part the blender had simply made the seeds and tomato skin hair dizzy.
It was at this point I totally forgot I’m a grandmother and began to channel a drunken sailor on leave. My language wasn’t just blue it was neon! Words came out of my mouth that I later had to look up. The dogs fled the room and my poor husband shifted from foot to foot trying to decide if he should offer suggestions.
As I stopped to draw breath so I could continue cursing the tomatoes, the appliances, the garden, and Mother Nature in general, I realized I had, if not lost my mind, thrown it a fair distance away. Leaving everything, including my husband, in the kitchen I limped into the bedroom. I was certain that I’d developed dementia which had precluded me from ever making tomato sauce again.
Slowly my breathing slowed and I began to think again. I’d only used about 16 of the 56 pounds I’d pulled from the freezer. Wonderful! I’d try again and this time it would all work out. But not that day.
My husband put the two pots of tomato…stuff…in the refrigerator. My son texted me that he and his girlfriend were stopping by with a family size dinner, so I didn’t have to cook. The dogs even came out of hiding. I took my pain pills, slapped on the pain patches (thank you, Dr. H.), and took to my bed.
And the next morning I was back in the kitchen. I was absolutely certain that I had figured out how to get puree using the food mill. I heaved the two pots of tomato substance out of the refrigerator and set up the food mill again. I poured as much of the tomatoes into the hopper as it would hold and began to crank. And…nothing.
A couple of drops of liquid slid down the chute and some dried up looking skin/seed combo started to ooze toward the “garbage” bowl but no puree appeared. And after a few more cranks of the handle everything just stopped. I couldn’t crank any more. No puree magically slid into the bowl, and the tomatoes in the hopper were just sitting there, all semi-liquid and annoying.
I was done with sauce. I never wanted to even think about sauce again. If sauce called I’d send it to voicemail immediately.
Once again I pressed my husband into service. Together we got all the liquid separated from the semi-solid stuff. I washed some pint canning jars and got the canner ready. I was going to make tomato juice!
Late that afternoon, which was really more early evening, I had completed the canning. For over two days of work, the terrorizing of my husband and dogs, my own complete mental and physical breakdown, and inability to stand, let alone walk, I had a total of six pints of tomato juice. I wanted to celebrate by climbing a clock tower with a rifle.
Yep. This is what I ended up with.
I’m sure in a few days or weeks, I’ll try once again to make tomato sauce. I’m positive I’ve worked out the kinks in canning frozen tomatoes. It’s all going to be fine next time.
Oh…did I mention that while I had the hopper full of semi-liquid tomatoes and the mill got jammed my son and his girlfriend came over? Did I mention that I decided to clean the screen of the food mill? And that when I pulled the screen off the entire hopper of mostly liquid tomatoes came flooding through and covered the kitchen island in a substance that looked almost like puree? No? I probably forgot because of the massive amounts of alcohol I’ve discovered are needed to do canning.