Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a woman with unruly hair, a one eyed pug, a tiny kitchen and a Pops with a garden full of tomatoes.
Now, this wild haired woman was good at some things…like the game Catch Phrase, making guacamole, eating tortilla chips and wandering among the buttes and singing songs to fields full of pretty birds, deer and wildflowers (picture Snow White, without the impractical dress and minus six or seven dwarves). She had a good life, yes indeed. She felt fulfilled living in her small cabin, waking up to a pink sky and a sun rising over the red barn and taking on a day filled with creative things, like taking photos, writing stories, playing guitar, riding horses and, well, eating guacamole. Her life was complete and organized just the way she wanted it.
Having lived in this cabin in the middle of nowhere for over a year, the woman was indeed comfortable. She had seen the summer sun, felt the snow on her tongue and watched eagerly as it melted into water in the spring sun and filled the creek beds. She had basked through two glorious summers and wound down with the wind that blew the leaves off of the trees in the fall. So when the weather began to shift, the breeze turned crisp, the horses and the pug started to grow their long coats, and the woman’s tan skin began to fade back to its pasty white appearance, the woman with wild hair knew what was in store for her. Winter was coming and she was excited to celebrate accordingly. She took longer coffee breaks, she wore her down vest when she was out on her paint in the golden hills, she put another blanket on the bed and at night and traded in her shorts for her favorite thing in the world: fleece stretchy pants.
All was well and right in her autumn world as she sat in her recliner, feet adequately slippered, sipping on hot homemade soup and watching “Project Runway” with the surround sound engaged. Then, just as Tim Gunn was telling the latest fashion loser to “pack their needles, or sewing machine, or weird, creepy mannequin body and go,” the woman with wild hair heard someone at the door.
She set down her soup, un-reclined, rolled her fleecy body out of her chair and went to the door.
It was her Pops. And he was carrying a giant box….
full of tomatoes…
And a really, really big and heavy looking garbage bag. …
“Hi Jess, whatcha doing?”
“oh, hi, umm, nothing. Cleaning. Yeah. Cleaning the house. Whew, been working on it all weekend,” the wild haired woman replied.
“Oh, ok. Yeah. I don’t want to interrupt that then, but I thought I’d stop by and bring you some of these tomatoes…my garden was full of them and I had to pick them before the frost…”
“Oh, ok. Yeah. Great. Tomatoes. Wow, there’s a lot of them aren’t there. Haha. Yeah. That’s a lot of salads…,” she felt her face begin to flush and her armpits go sweaty.
“Yeah,” said her Pops. “I had a great garden this year. Lots of tomatoes, and, well, say, I was thinking maybe you could do something with these. You know, like salsa or soup or something…you know how to can don’t you? I mean, that strawberry-rhubarb jam you made this spring was pretty delicious…” He smiled a toothy grin and the woman felt an unruly curl spring out of its place in her unkempt ponytail.
She was full-on sweating now, regretting her fleece pants and recalling the overconfident, naive, head first dive approach she has used to attack every new kitchen experiment in her life…and the piece of rhubarb she’s been meaning to clean off of her ceiling for months.
Her voice came out of her lungs a few octaves higher as she replied, “Oh, sure Pops. No problem. I’ve always wanted to try canning salsa. Never had the opportunity. Look there, I could make jars and jars with that yield…and, umm, so well what’s in that giant garbage bag there?”
“Oh this?” he replied, hefting a thirty ton bag up from the ground and over his shoulder. “These here are crabapples! I picked them from the tree behind our house…”
“Oh really? I remember that tree…”
“Yeah. Your gram used to make the best crab apple jelly. I absolutely loved it. I was thinking you could try it? Don’t you think? It shouldn’t be that hard. Oh, it’s so good. Nothing better.”
The wild haired woman paused, recalling for the first time in years the sweet taste of her grandmother’s crab apple jelly on a piece of hot toast. It was delicious, there was nothing better. He was right. She could handle the thirty tons of apples–jelly she had done before without killing anyone.
But how does a giant box of tomatoes turn into restaurant style pacante sauce?
And how could she say no to a man who sees her as his only chance to taste, once again, his favorite homemade goodies?
She smiled and hefted the thirty ton bag of apples over her own shoulders as her pops set the boxes of tomatoes on the table in her quaint kitchen.
“Can’t wait,” chirped her Pops as he flew out the door.
“Me too,” whimpered the woman as she assessed the situation.
“You have not seen the last of me,” said the eliminated designer over her surround sound.
And so there she was, alone. Alone in a house filled with autumn’s harvest. Fruits of her father’s labor and a nearly 100 year old apple tree. The woman poured herself a glass of wine, accepted that television wouldn’t be an option for three to four years, sat down at the table, closed her eyes and tried her best to channel Martha Stewart…
…then woke up the next morning with a tomato stuck to her cheek and a vague memory of a dream involving Martha and a mini mansion made out of pumpkins.
She grabbed a cup of coffee and turned to the only thing she knew: Google.
Yup. She Googled it. She Googled “tomato canning,” “salsa,” “what the hell is a hot water bath?” “can I poison relatives if I attempt to make homemade salsa without the supervision of a professional?” and “Martha, help me.”
Finding, again, no direct answers and no home phone number for Martha or Paula Dean, the woman put on her town clothes, went to work and talked to her neighbor….the same neighbor who got her out of the plum jelly mess of 2010.
And her life was saved as her lovely, experienced friend presented her with her mother’s own original tried and true salsa recipe. And as the wild haired woman marched her weary butt to the grocery store to pick up the rest of her ingredients, it occurred to her that the very recipe she had in her purse could possibly have been made by her grandmother. The two women were best friends!
Revitalized by that thought, the woman drove home, ran inside and unloaded her ingredients and set them alongside her hand-written recipe. She dove in…ignoring the fact that it was 8:30 pm on a Tuesday.
Tomatoes? She had ‘em. Onions? Check. Tomato paste, spices, celery? Yes! She even mustered up the strength to purchase two green peppers and six jalapenos–scary, scary ingredients for this pasty woman with scandinavian blood. This was going to be good. Easy. Just follow the recipe…
She boiled water and submerged the fresh, ripe tomatoes for one minute, then transferred them to ice water. And although this was a new process, this tomato peeling thing, she was getting it. She had it down. It looked like a regular tomato massacre had occurred in her kitchen. Boy, time flies when you get the hang of something, she thought to herself, because by the time she was done with step #1 it was already 11 pm. No worries, she could power through. She must! Jalapenos here she comes…wait, a minute…where were her caning jars?
She stormed the three steps to her bedroom and laid down face first on the bed and passed out. Tomorrow was another day and she hoped the naked tomatoes could wait.
The next morning the sun rose like it always does over the red barn as the tomatoes sat chilling in the refrigerator. The woman pulled on her fleece pants and called her momma in town to ask her to bring some jars home with her. See, the woman had a big project due that day, and unfortunately that big project didn’t involve a trip to town…or the tomatoes. It was 7 pm before the woman looked up from her work to a knock on the door. It was her momma, and the jars.
Thrilled with the arrival of her final supply, the woman got to work. She mixed herself a margarita, chopped up the naked tomatoes, cut up the onions…and proceeded to weep like a baby, stepping outside every few moments to compose herself. This salsa thing was serious business. Then she moved on to the green peppers. She crinkled her brow against the sweat that always forms in response to these green vegetables. But really, it was no problem. Check. Phew. On to the jalapenos…she needed six.
Six? Really?! “Are you sure?” she muttered to herself as she examined the recipe for the sixteenth time. “I thought this woman was a Lutheran!”
But despite her questions, the wild haired woman, whose hair tends to grow larger in stressful situations, has always been one to follow directions. So onward she went, carefully cutting the foreign peppers, removing the seeds, wiping her eyes and….
“ahhhhh, my eeeyyyeees, my eeyyyyeeees, they’re burning! BUURRNNINNGG!!,” she screamed as her husband jumped six feet off the chair and appeared in the kitchen.
“What, what is it?” he asked calmly.
“Myyyy eyyyyeesss, they’re on fiiirreee,” she screamed again as she swung open the bathroom door and submerged her head under the running water of the sink.
“Good Lord, Jessie. Don’t touch your eyes when you’re cutting up peppers! Mercy, calm down,” her husband instructed as he leaned in over the sink with her.
“ugghgghghghgh,….gargle gargle….I…hateah…pepphhaaas…” she sobbed.
She sat down on the toilet as her husband examined the damage. With a clean bill of health and her characteristic determination, the woman with wild hair and blood shot eyes, returned to her work in the kitchen. She finished slicing. She finished dicing. She finished seasoning and measuring and put it all in a pot to cook while she prepared for the next step: the hot water bath.
It was now closing in on 10 pm on day three of what she was now referring to as “The Great Salsa Debacle of 2011.”
The woman reached into her cupboards, dug around and pulled out the biggest pot she owned. Her instructions clearly stated that the “jars must be submerged in the boiling water for 30 minutes to ensure that when consumed the salsa will not poison every person in your life you loved enough to gift with homemade salsa.”
She grabbed a jar, tested the depth of her biggest pot…then threw her body to the floor…
her husband handed her the phone.
“Hi, you’ve reached the Veeders…leave a message and we’ll call you back…” said the answering machine.
“Heelllooo, momm, are you theeerreee. I am in the middle of a canning crisis and I need a bigger…”
“Hello, yes. Jess. What do you need?”
“Oh, thank the LORD. You answered. I am in the middle of canning salsa…I need a bigger pot. I know you have one. You HAVE TO HAVE ONE!”
“It’s 10:30 at night”
“I know, I’m coming over.”
So she did. And made no apologies. The wild haired woman in fleece sweatpants with blood shot eyes got in her car and drove the mile to her mommas to get a bigger pot. She was determined and was pretty sure she was sweating jalapenos out through her skin. Sweet Martha, she was itchy. But she got her pot. She got her pot, went back home, solicited her husband’s assistance, filled the jars to the top with the peppery, tomato-ey, spicy concoction, accidentally rubbed her eyes again, ignored the sting this time, because dammit, this was getting done, submerged the jars in the water bath, put the timer on 30 minutes, sat down on the couch to watch the latest episode of “Modern Family,” dozed off, drooled a little and was startled awake by the beeping of the timer.
Thank goodness she remembered to set the timer.
And thank goodness for neighbors, mommas, husbands, big pots and tried and true recipes.
and for winter and a break from tomatoes.
Oh, and really…thank the Lord this story, this project, this drama has a happy ending…
Yes, once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a woman with unruly hair, a one eyed pug, and a tiny kitchen who thought she had her comfortable world figured out…until a box of tomatoes not-so-effortlessly turned into a shelf full of delicious, homemade salsa…and the wild haired, red eyed woman with a tomato stuck to her face into something that resembles…
the exact opposite of Martha Stewart