For the love of tomato sauce — Calabrian style
Roma tomatoes for sale on the street in Toronto, September 5, 2014.
We tasted it, we begged for the recipe, but he said no. The only way to make it is in large quantities, he said, and that if we were really serious we’d have to do it as a group and by the bushel. And invite the neighbours.
He is Brian Fawcett, writer and gardener, and the neighbours are two women who live next door to him on Euclid Street in Toronto's Little Italy. Their names are Vittoria and Mimma and they are Italian grandmothers who, while speaking almost no English, have taught him how to make tomato sauce, and, to hear him describe it, quite a lot more about things Italian.
I was one of the six recipe-hunters who received the following instructions a few days into September: “Bring enough canning jars for 15 litres of sauce and a round-tipped steak knife. I’ll get the tomatoes from the Food Terminal, which will cost you about $10-$13 a bushel, and a few dollars more for a couple of bottles of Grappa. Show up on Saturday morning, 8:30 A.M. Don’t be late!”
They moved here because it has permitted a degree of culinary and cultural continuity.
“I'm from Northern B.C.” he said, when I kidded him about his army sergeant tone. “When there's work in the offing, we get serious. If you goof around, a tree might land on your head.”
Within minutes of our arrival in his garage that morning we were hard at work. “Vittoria and Mimma will be arriving in a little while,” announced Brian, whose busy concentration was mixed with the nervousness of someone preparing troops for inspection by his superiors.
The first stage of the work had four stations: washing and sterilizing jars in the kitchen — and in the open garage: washing the tomatoes, cutting and cooking them. The eight bushels of ripe Roma tomatoes were dumped bit by bit into a tub of warm water, which Brian brought from the house by rigging up a hose into his shower head. I asked why the warm water, thinking it might help to loosen the skins, he replied, “Because the dirt comes off easier, you idiot!” That was the last question I asked him that morning, and I focused on the work at hand: rubbing each tomato clean before dropping it into a second tub for rinsing. We changed the water in both tubs regularly, and learned that even the smallest amount of “the wrong tomato” will affect the quality of the sauce.
The definition of 'the wrong tomato' became clear at the cutting station. With the round-tipped steak knife we took each tomato in one hand, cut away any bruises (of which there were very few in our almost perfect batch), removed the stem base, and made two deeper cuts to open up the flesh. He told me not to cut out more ripe tomato than needed when removing the stem base, but to be sure remove all unripe flesh, which would affect the flavour. Once done, the tomatoes went in 5-gallon buckets. Why the round-tipped steak knives? “When you're working in close quarters,” Brian said, ”people can get flaky or flamboyant. The one time I didn't use a rounded-tip I managed to stab myself in the arm within the first 10 minutes.”
Two of the six of us are not new to this sort of experience. Frank Addario, 44, a criminal lawyer who grew up in a small town along the Niagara Escarpment, close to Niagara Falls, had made tomato sauce, cured meats and preserved fruits and vegetables as a child with his Italian parents. John Lee, 36, chef/owner of a Japanese restaurant who grew up in Korea, made kim chee with his family. For Caroline Quinn-Decker, 32, a British-born props house owner and the first set designer on the TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mervyn Key, 62, a (female) psychotherapist, Margie Shields, 46, a director of finance at a web design firm — and myself — this is our first time doing large-scale kitchen work. What the four of us have in common is being brought up in places of largely English, Scottish and Canadian descent where communal work days were either unheard of or very rare.
“Where I grew up communal work was common,” says Brian, who spent his youth in Prince George, British Columbia, 800 km. inland and 800 km. north of Vancouver, “If someone was pouring a house foundation, thirty people showed up.” For Caroline, Margie, Mervyn and me, working seven hours straight with people you hardly know makes you appreciate the ways of small towns and rural communities where work and socializing aren’t separated. “I don’t much like socializing without a purpose,” says Brian, an out-spoken and opinionated man who is also oddly shy. When he knows people well, he is as generous a host and guest as I’ve encountered. “This is a good way for me to hang out with people,” he says, “doing something.”
It's peasant work, and they haven't particularly wanted their kids to help.
Just as we’re about to light the industrial propane burners under the two ten-gallon pots of tomatoes, Vittoria and Mimma arrive. Work stops, but only for a moment. Those of us sitting on milk crates rise to be introduced. Vittoria is tiny and quiet, 73 years old with a handsomely-lined face and a merry laugh. Mimma is tall, grand and vocal, about the same age; her voice fills the garage with an authority that makes me work harder. Greetings and introductions last no more than a half-minute, then they’re off — to their tour of our stations.
The first thing Vittoria spots is the way Frank is crushing the cut tomatoes with his hands. She nixes the method in a matter-of-fact way, without the least bit of explanation. Later, Mimma objects to how he is crushing the tomatoes with the big spoon when he is stirring the cook pot. Both women are aware of their role as experts supervising a fast-moving kitchen operation, and as participants in oral history (the Latin roots of the word tradition, trado and traduco, mean “to hand over, to surrender” and “to lead across”). For Mimma and Vittoria this is a chance to affirm their culture and give something useful to the “mangacakes” — which literally means "eat cake". “‘Those English people sure do love sugar!’” says Brian, quoting his Italian friends. “Italians,” he added, “think the way Anglos consume sugar is very funny.”
Mid-way through the morning Mimma brings out a tray of cookies and coffee in demi-tasses. This doesn’t mean it’s break time; we drink it on the fly. Mimma hands me the sugar, which I don’t usually take in coffee, and when I refuse she counters with a friendly, insistent scowl — “Yes, little bit. Good . . .” She watches as I add a half-teaspoon from the stainless steel bowl she’s brought from her house two doors away, then nods and smiles. I smile back and think to myself how much I want to please this person, and drink in what she has to tell me — along with the coffee, which is very strong and does need the sugar.
The cooking of the tomatoes complete, we group around the electric Italian-made tomato grinder, fashioning aluminum foil troughs to catch the spill and splatter. Here the tomato mash is ground to remove the seeds and skin. “Most of the older Italians on my street make sauce,” Brian says, “But you have to understand their attitude toward it. It's peasant work, and they haven't particularly wanted their kids to help. Some do help — Mimma's grown sons, who are well-educated building contractors — but they do it because they enjoy it, and because they're good people. But mostly the parents have wanted their children to concentrate on becoming urban professionals who are too busy for this sort of thing. They were all surprised when I got involved — a university educated mangacake. They didn't realize that I was brought up the same way in Northern B.C. during an era where preserving seasonal fruits and vegetables wasn't really optional — in the winter we’d get 6-8 feet of snow and -50 degree (F.) temperatures and you couldn’t get fresh vegetables.”
Vittoria and Mimma are both from Vallelonge, an inland village in the southern province of Calabria, the toe of the boot that is Italy. Brian says that 80 percent of Toronto's 560,000 or so Italians are Calabrese. “They moved here because the summer climate is similar, and has permitted a degree of culinary and cultural continuity: tomatoes, peppers, basil, Romano beans all thrive here, as they do at home. Many of the families who emigrated here continue to own their original homes in the Calabrian villages they came from. And the warm nights here permit them to sit outside and socialize into the evening the way they’re used to. During the winter, Mimma and Vittoria literally disappear. Vittoria in particular hates the winter, and rarely ventures outside.
At 1:00 P.M., about three-quarters of the way through the job, our lunch is ready on the table. There are several kinds of salads, cheese, salami, prosciutto, bread from the Riviera Bakery, swish vinegars and oils, two kinds of Brian’s canned roasted peppers (hot and mild), and bottles of cold Canadian Chardonnay and Chilean Carmenere. Not bad. It’s one of those thrown-together feasts you see in cookbooks showing a table of diners in a court-yard in Tuscany, with the obligatory halo of orange light bathing the scene. Here we are, Toronto urban-dwellers with the means and knowledge to dine in such a way, trying to ward off our combo-plates of urban anxiety, learning old world “peasant” customs — and just plain hungry after four hours work without a break.
We sit down and ask Mimma and Vittoria to join us. They say no but we urge them. No, they insist, motioning in the direction of the grinder, this must be done. The grinder whines on for another fifteen minutes as we eat. When they finish the last of the mash they join us at our makeshift feast.
“This makes me feel like back home,” says John, whose close friends call Johnnie. “Walking through Seoul in October you’d see people everywhere making kim chee. It means ‘pickled vegetable.’ I made it with my aunts and uncles and grandparents and all of us in the family, and when we did it the whole neighbourhood got involved. We’d have a feast for about a week. There aren’t too many fresh vegetables available in the winter in Korea — and of course refrigeration was fairly new invention — so we used large ceramic containers to store it in.”
When asked about the size of the containers he points to the two oil drums owned by Vittoria and Mimma standing by for us to process our finished jars of sauce. “The containers are buried in a 5-foot hole to keep freshness through the winter. Kim chee is usually pickled cabbage with salt, garlic, ginger, lots of hot peppers and a shrimp or fish sauce to get the fermentation going.”
Johnnie’s first impression of Brian’s sauce, which he’d obtained as a gift from Frank, was that it had a very complex flavour. “It intrigued me that something with that complex a flavour could be made so simply. But as a chef I hear the same thing all the time: ‘Keep it simple. Use fresh ingredients.’ Here’s a perfect example of that. Of course you can’t make this with three or four tomatoes. A flavour like this comes from a concentration of many tomatoes.”
A few days earlier, Brian — who is 58, married and father to a 5 year-old daughter — had spent two days with Vittoria and Mimma turning 32 bushels of tomatoes into 520 litres of sauce.
“There are about six women who do this together. Vittoria and Mimma are the two alpha females, and the most industrious. They’re helping here today because they like doing it, and because I help them, doing the jobs that are hard for them, moving around the drums, tightening the jars.” Brian shows me a half-healed blister on his palm from tightening 520 jars.
“These are people who understand reciprocity,” he says as we place an oil drum on a propane burner. “Each of them keeps a generous balance sheet of who does what for whom. This is also the way I grew up. It's completely unlike the middle-class approach to life, where the object is to have enough money and property that you don't have to talk to anyone.”
With her eyes and body language she lets me know that this is an important step, and that I am to remember . . .
Brian was an urban planner in Vancouver before he moved to Toronto, a city where he feels much more at home. He has recently published a book, Virtual Clearcut, or: The Way Things Are In My Hometown, which NOW Magazine called “one of the best non-fiction books ever to come out of Canada.” Much of his fiction and non-fiction is geared to making sense of a world infected by what he considers “a disconnection between living and thinking.” The roots of his small town, rural co-operative values have been reinvigorated in events like this one, where people are getting along and getting something done. “Everybody in a small community knows how to get along,” Brian says. “If you don't, you get your head bashed in.”
“Today in this garage we are making something that can't be mass-produced and can't be produced alone. The best economies-of-scale are the ones that involve physical contact, exact knowledge and good materials. Smart people gravitate toward those situations. My neighbours are very smart, generous women. I'm lucky I live next door to them. They've made my life much better.”
In addition to publishing a very good book on urban gardening, The Compact Garden, Brian also has a heritage pole bean named after him: Fawcett’s Yugoslav. “I saved it from oblivion after I got it from a neighbour in Vancouver and then improved it with 20 years of selecting the best seeds. Then I gave it back to gardeners.” Apart from exercising his passion for gardening, he spends much of his creative energies on social and cultural criticism. As the facilitator and main writer on www.dooneyscafe.com, a web-based independent news service, he guides regular correspondents in Berlin, Washington, D.C., Bangkok, Uzbekistan, and traveling correspondents throughout the world. Dooney’s Café — the land-based version — is owned by Graziano Marchese, brother of M.P.P. Rosario, who grew up in San Niccola, about two kilometres from Vallelonge. Brian is one of a string of writers, artists and progressive types who hang out at Dooney’s on a regular basis to soak up Graz’s style of Italian hospitality. Brian also plays on a baseball team with Graz and Rosario in a neighbourhood league (Dooney’s record is 3-53 over 4 years, including a run of 42 straight losses no one on the team was worried by).
Smaller jars make it possible to provide enough fresh sauce for one or two portions.
Our work comes to an end about 3:30 P.M. after the sauce is poured over a sprig of fresh basil at the bottom of each jar. No salt, no pepper, no spice — simply tomatoes. We form an assembly line to feed the tightened jars to Brian who stacks them gingerly on their sides in layers inside two 45-gallon drums. Each is then filled with water and brought to a light boil, covered and left to cool (“You don’t want to over-cook the sauce,” Brian tells me, “just sterilize it.”). By that time each jar’s lid and rubber seal is fixed in the concave position, and the contents can be stored for up to 2-4 years.
Mimma, who is pouring sauce from a tub into individual jars, catches my attention. She points to the way she is stirring the sauce in the tub in a slow half-circle before she dips the cup in to fill it. With her eyes, body language and expressive, incomprehensible dialect, she lets me know that this is an important step, and that I am to remember — for next time. She knows, and so do I, that this detail won’t get lost, and that the decision to show me — a middle-aged neophyte — can have an infinite effect, the same kind it had on her, many years ago in Vallelonge.
The next day at my house in High Park my son hands me up the jars of sauce that I’m storing on the top shelves of my kitchen cupboard. “Hard to reach so they last,” I tell him. When he asks me what’s in this tomato sauce and I tell him, he doesn’t believe me. “Isn’t that a little plain?” he asks.
On Euclid Street a man is placing a bottle of Grappa at the doors of his neighbours. “When we were making the sauce they were joking about being paid,” says Brian, “but they were totally surprised when these bottles showed up on their doorsteps. Pleased, but very surprised. But they also knew exactly where they came from, and why.”
This unpublished article, in hibernation until today, was written for pleasure in 2003.
WHITNEY SMITH is the editor of The Journal of Wild Culture, a retired fiddlehead executive, and an avid practitioner of making food that can be 'put up', frozen or preserved in any way for later. One of his fondest culinary memories was making sauterne jelly from the grapes in his urban garden.