The Life-Changing Magic of Canning Tomatoes
I hadn't been dating Antonia for more than a couple of weeks when she invited me to her parents' home for lunch. For the first time. We were moving pretty quickly, if you must know, because we had already dated, exactly once, five years earlier, then took a half-decade break to figure things out. Still, I didn't know her parents at all. "My mom's making eggplant," Antonia announced. "It's the best." I waited a beat before answering. At the time, I was a cocky young journalist and restaurant critic being paid to say way too much about the hard kitchen work and creativity of others. I was also accustomed to pretty lackluster eggplant in every direction where I grew up in northern New Jersey. "I'll be the judge of that," I told her, half-jokingly. She kissed me.
I know what you're thinking: It's the first time I'm meeting my future mother-in-law, so I'd better like the eggplant. Of course, I was thinking the same thing. And because my own mother taught me impeccable manners, I had no intention of saying anything critical about my wife's favorite recipe—or the woman who cooked it.
For a lot of people, eggplant is the polarizing cilantro of the vegetable world: You love it or hate it. I hated it. Unequivocally. My very large Italian-American family made "eggplant parm" in the saucy-gooey-cheesy style that is common in pizzerias and restaurants all over America. This style, I've come to understand, is the outgrowth of the culinary game of telephone, or whisper down the lane, where many of the wonderful recipes imported from Italy over a century ago somehow morphed through the generations into this "parm" style: "Dip in scrambled eggs, dredge in either flour or breadcrumbs or both, fry, layer in a pan with lots of tomato sauce and tons of mozzarella, and then bake." Practically everything edible can be "parmed," which is how the abominable "shrimp parm" got whispered down the lane. But I digress.
All eight of my great-grandparents fled the poverty of Italy's Campania region in the late 1800s to find work—and love—in New York City, eventually settling just across the Hudson River in Jersey City. Why Jersey City? Because some of us are just luckier than others. The cooking I grew up with in our blue-collar, working-class microcosm was, in a word, pesante. In the sauce vs. gravy war, our camp was heavily entrenched in gravy, the three-hour, crimson-red, super-thick Sunday sauce built upon the rendered fat and sticky browned bits of pork ribs, sausage, meatballs, and braciole.
Antonia and her family are, well, different. Her parents left the poverty of Sicily to come to the U.S. in the 1960s. Her mother arrived the year I was born. Antonia was born a year later and didn't speak English until she went to kindergarten. Her parents barely spoke English when we met on that balmy August day for lunch three decades after they moved here.
Antonia's dad, Vito LoPresti, was a man of very few words. He giggled a lot and mumbled a lot, and he was one of the sweetest men I've ever met. He greeted me with a huge smile, and when he realized I was speaking to him in Italian, he said, "Bravo, Antonio, bravo!" Antonia's mom, Lucia, was the Italian mother out of central casting: the short, teased, matronly hairdo, the apron-shirt with metal snaps up the front protecting her house dress as she placed an insane number of antipasti on the table. Her voice was so high I imagined that if she lost her temper the windows might rattle. I remembered childhood aunts from Italy who spoke in this octave. It was oddly reassuring, even if she did sound like a macaw, chirping out orders to Antonia and her sister, Maria.
So, what did Lucia's eggplant taste like? Antonia was right: It was the best eggplant I've ever tasted. Choosing adjectives to describe it is difficult because they are contradictory. It was both sweet and savory. Rich and ethereally light. Moist but not at all watery. Silky but not oily. It was less about mozzarella and more about the distinct sharpness of Parmigiano-Reggiano. In other words, it wasn't "parmed." The eggplant had been quickly pan-fried without egg or breadcrumbs. Between each layer was her bright red, silky-chunky tomato sauce made without meat. It was exceptional.
When I asked Lucia about her sauce, Vito laughed and quipped that I should come fare le giare—do the jars. He was inviting me to come can tomatoes with the family, and I was thrilled. My own family used to can when I was a kid, but when my grandfather Jim died, the tradition died with him. I would not be exaggerating if I told you that being invited into this whole situation weighed heavily in Antonia's favor as I considered giving her a ring.
Twenty-two years later we—with our two teenagers—are still "doing the jars," and it's one of my favorite times of the year. Sadly, we canned last summer for the first time without Vito, who had passed away the winter before. But there are still plenty of us to carry on the tradition. The cast of characters expands and contracts as we process hundreds of jars over several days, fulfilling various orders for not only my family but also Lucia's in-laws' family, all of whom emigrated from Sicily around the same time, 50 years ago. We are usually two or three generations of relatives, plus a friend or two, including chefs Dan Richer (from Razza Pizza Artigianale) and Sally Schneider (James Beard Award–winning author of A New Way to Cook). Still other chefs who've tasted Lucia's sauce or eggplant have asked to come cook with her, including Jonathan Waxman and Gabrielle Hamilton. Angie Mar even invited her to come teach her team at The Beatrice Inn, but Lucia doesn't get what all the fuss is about.
Depending on how many 44-pound bushels of plum tomatoes we break down in a day (sometimes six, sometimes 16), we'll be working from six in the morning until … we're done. We might not finish before nightfall, which in August could be 15 hours after we started. On the best days, however, when we have a lot of hands, we can have everything in jars by 2 p.m. and then head up to Lucia's air-conditioned dining room—or, if the temperature is moderate, outside under her grapevine-covered pergola. There, we eat a feast that always features spaghetti tossed in the fresh tomato sauce, a mandatory tomato salad, Lucia's eggplant (of course, but during the warmer months, she grills the eggplant), and meats that Lucia grills and then bathes in olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs from her garden. Washed down with ice-cold red wine (which you'll want me to name, but it honestly doesn't matter), there isn't a better meal on earth.