I read somewhere that Syracuse has the highest percentage of Italian-Americans of any city in North America. This was quite a few years ago, so it's probably no longer true, but when I was growing up it seemed as if everyone I knew was Italian, with Germans being a distant second. Despite being 75% Italian, I didn't grow up immersed in Italian culture like many of my friends from the North Side did. My parents didn't speak Italian, we didn't have flocked wallpaper or gold velvet furniture (I'm choosing to pretend 1978-81 didn't happen) or a giant crystal chandelier in our dining room. We drove Volkswagens and buttoned our shirts. My grandparents were definitely more in touch with Italian culture, even though both had come to America as young children. Neither spoke with an accent, or even in Italian, unless they were discussing something not meant for young ears. Then the conversation would switch back and forth between Italian and English, often three or four times in a single sentence. I had to go to either of my Great Grandmothers or to distant cousins to find the real Italian culture. The one exception was food. My immediate family had "sketties" at least once a week or the occasional lasagna, and Sunday dinner at Gram's house was always macaroni - shells, rigatoni, or if I got to choose, wheels - with the big pot filled with meatballs, sausage, spare ribs, sauce, and braciole. My mom's meatballs were better (though I was smart enough to keep that opinion to myself) but Gram's braciole was heavenly. There was no point comparing sauce, as it all came from the same place: the well-stocked shelves of Gram's cellar, lined with rows of mason jars filled with homemade sauce. Every summer we'd pile into Pop-Pop's car and drive out to what seemed to be the sticks at the time (but was probably just Baldwinsville) to pick tomatoes. I'm pretty sure my brother and I threw more than we collected, but eventually we'd fill up a bushel basket and carry it back to the car. Meanwhile my grandmother would waddle up to the car, drop her apron, and somehow, magically, three bushels of tomatoes would come spilling out and into the trunk. The woman was barely five feet tall so don't ask me how she did it. We were charged by the bushel so while we were picking my grandfather worked on getting as many tomatoes as humanly possible (and often more) into a bushel basket. By the time he was done the baskets looked like red ice cream cones turned upside down. The fun was over, but the work wasn't. Late August meant canning, so we'd all head down to the cellar (every Italian family had a makeshift kitchen set up in their cellar for canning in the summer heat - apparently it was cheaper than buying an air conditioner, though much less effective at keeping us cool) to can. Gram would be at the stove, standing on a platform so she could reach the pots simmering on all four burners. My mom and Aunt Joanne did the actual canning, and I was in charge of the machine. The machine! If I was going to spend a week of my summer vacation toiling in a sweltering cellar (and I was, whether I wanted to or not) the machine was the best way to do it. The machine was a grinder/strainer that my grandfather and uncle had hooked up to a lawn mower engine. I would put a tomato into the opening, push it down with the wooden tool, and the machine would extract the juice and strain out the flesh and seeds. The juice would come shooting out the side and into a pot with an awesome splurty noise that was second only to throwing the tomatoes as far as fun. Then I'd take the lump of skin, flesh and seeds and throw it out. Or rather, I'd try to throw it out, but my grandfather stopped me. "put it through again" he'd say, and I'd roll my eyes and repeat the process. The splurt would be softer this time, and only a trickle of juice would come out, but it was still juice. Then, to my dismay, he'd say "put it through again" and I'd repeat the process - with eye rolling and rapidly diminishing returns - until the plump, juicy, freshly picked tomato was about the size of a quarter and as hard as a rock. Only then was I allowed to throw it out, and even then it was only grudgingly. If the tomato didn't make a clang when I threw it out, that meant I hadn't put it through the machine enough times. Finally canning week would come to an end and we'd admire the rows of gleaming new jars of sauce, sauce that would anchor our meals for the coming year. Eventually my gram died, and we stopped canning. For a while my mom would mix our sauce with store bought to make it stretch further, and then came the week when there just wasn't any left. I thought it would be a big deal but nobody said a word about it, and we transitioned to store bought sauce as if we'd never canned. I started using less; it's not that I didn't like store sauce but it just wasn't the same. Now I barely use any. A few of us were discussing sauce on Facebook today (which lead to this post) and we agreed that store sauce has come a long way since those days, and honestly I don't think I'd bother to pick and can my own sauce now that there are so many options available. Even so, the smell of tomatoes in a hot kitchen always makes me think of canning, and as much as I hated it then, I wish I could hear my grandfather tell me to "put it through again".

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