It was often a family business. The tomatoes would be set to cook in vast pots, stirred by enormous wooden spoons and somebody would be in charge of that; there would be an old tin bath which would be cocooned and insulated by old rags, and somebody had to make this nest and then, when individual bottles were ready, take them there and tuck them in so that they could cool off slowly; there were people at the kitchen table handling the stuff that the bottles were to be sealed with - organic waxy stuff that would stretch and then vacuum seal - and there were rubber bands and string and oh it was a procedure - and the bottles were those old thick green ones, which I can't even see anywhere these days - something like this:
And then there'd be the jams and the pickles and everything else oh my, and the pantry would look like a picture shoot for an old-time magazine, and sometimes in the middle of the coldest deepest darkest winter a jar or a bottle would be brought out and opened and the kitchen would, for a little while, smell of memory and of summer all over again.
These days you just wander in and buy a handful of gas-ripened tomatoes from someplace like Mexico, and you don't think twice about it. The modern tomatoes no longer smell like those old-time heirloom fruits ripened on the vine which we used, and barely taste like them - a couple of months ago rdeck and I happened upon a display at our local supermarket featuring tomatoes grown in farmland barely an hour north from us, and a sample tomato was cut up to be tasted - and one bite of that and I was grabbing for the tomatoes ready to stuff my shopping basket with them regardless of the fact that there was only a double handful of them and they cost considerably more than other kinds of tomatoes in vast piles nearby - but they TASTED LIKE TOMATOES, like I could remember tomatoes ought to taste, and that was worth the asking price. Really. My grandmother could have used these in her tomato paste cottage industry. They were Real Tomatoes (TM)
It was this same grandmother, the kindest and gentlest of people, who would wring chickens' necks without a second thought when a chicken was to be on the menu that day. There was this vast and chipped blue enamel bowl which I remember vividly from her kitchen, and this would be filled with boiling water, and the still twitching chicken plunged into that and plucked of its feathers, and then de-bowelled of its innards (and those were the days when I still regularly ate and loved chicken livers - this was long before I learned what a liver is and what it does and what, by inference, it must contain, and cooled off considerably on the concept of willingly ingesting some other creature's concentrated toxins) and the farm-fresh chicken, raised on what now would be termed organic food and completely free-range, would be roasted in the oven. I don't remember the stove in my gran's old kitchen - there might have even been two, one of each kind, one electric and one the old-fashioned wood-fired oven type, I cannot swear to it, but the thing is that the old-fashioned stoves were still around back then and my grandmother knew what to do with them in order to produce food which is more than I can say for myself - I'd wind up burning the house down around my ears if I tried, or at the very least inhale enough soot to blacken my lungs for a decade and give myself third degree burns up to the elbows.
We ate stuff that you guys would think utterly disgusting if I told you about it now but which was utterly delicious and which I still miss - those were the days of slaughtering your own livestock or knowing somebody who did, and the products that made their way into the kitchens of yore might have still had the same mind-blowing cholesterol values as they do today but they were unadulterated by a passage through major industrial processes of any sort and they damned well tasted like it. One of my favourite snacks as a toddler (and yes you may all look away now if you want) was lard smeared on bread with a sprinking of paprika on top - hey, don't knock if if you haven't tried it (and don't try it unless you've got home-grown lard...) In the garden of the town house and in the huge yard of the village place we had our own walnuts, cherries, plums, apricots, pears, raspberries, grapes, a slew of vegetables... and honey. My grandpa was a beekeeper and there was always honey in the house, and honey was a sovereign remedy for EVERYTHING - it still is today - if I have a cough or a sore throat it's straight to the honey pot fro me. In the lazy summers the gardens would be abuzz with drifting bees, and my favourite kind of honey was gathered from the white acacias, a kind of - oh - for heaven's sake, go find a jar of it and taste it, it tastes of liquid sunshine and cool summer shade and of my childhood and you still wouldn't get the full taste of it from shop-bought stuff because my grandfather's honey just tasted like my grandfather's honey and I am sure part of the taste was pure love. To the day he died - to the last visit I ever made to my grandfather's house - he still had a little container of honey always set aside, for me. Just for me. It was my honey. MINE. My memories stirred into it. And I can still taste it at the back of my throat as it slides down, the sweetness and the warm mellow glory of it.
My grandparents' kitchen was always a haven that smelled of warm stuff and good food. Of melting chocolate for cakes (and us kids were always allowed to lick out the remains of the frosting and the cake glazing from the pots in which it had been cooked. Priviliege of being grandchildren). I used to love the snack of an egg yolk stirred up until foamy with a little bit of sugar - but that we stopped a long time ago, when I was really young, because the eggs were no longer farm-fresh eggs and it was deemed to be less safe than it used to be. I still love the taste though and when cake recipes call for yolk stirred in with sugar I steal shamelessly from the bowl in which I am stirring them together.... There was one of those humungous old-fashioned alarm clocks with a couple of metal alarm bells like bulbous ears on top of it which the hammer would wake into cacophonous noise if the alarm was set - and when it wasn't set the clock ticked loudly in the silence of the kitchen, tucked away on the white wooden credenza on the far wall. One drawer in that credenza was reserved for Grandpa's String - he use to collect bits of it, of whatever length, and tie them up in neat butterflies, and store these in the drawer - just in case he might need them some day. I am sure that if you tied them all together they would add up to a mile of string. A mile of string probably got thrown away as useless - never having been needed - after he died.
Grandpa's garlic in a pot at the back of the credenza - he munched on it because it was supposed to lower blood pressure.
Kitchen cloths in the second drawer - some of them embroidered by my grandmother's own hand, back when she was a girl.
Pots and pans, underneath - all familiar, all with a purpose, used for This or for That. Flour. Sugar. The pot of honey.
There must have been a fridge. I don't remember it at all. This kitchen feels as though it belongs in a different century - and it does, it did, it was back in the twentieth that it had its heyday and it had brought a lot of stuff forward from a lot earlier than that, or so it felt to the child that was me.
Long gone. Vanished. Into memory.
I have no idea what shoved me in this direction - unless it was simply the act of sitting outside on our deck on a summer evening and having a glass of wine and me staring at the clean white lines of the bottle and remembering those thick and massive green glass bottles of yesteryear which I hadn't seen for DECADES and from there the taste of childhood honey was only a step away into the past...j