Welcome to our new series at Local Milk, where each week you will see new and inspiring content from guest contributors! Our first guest is Chelsea J. O’Leary, a Nashville-based artist who practices photography, canning, and curiosity-driven conversation. She explores photography through both a film and digital format while also canning seasonal fruits and vegetables as both a celebration as well as an ode to her family’s history of farming, preserving, and remaining in partnership with the Midwestern land on which they reside. Today, Chelsea shares with us her Grandma Trudy’s recipe for whole canned tomatoes, and along with that a beautiful story of family history, her thoughts on the idea of “favorites,” and a brilliant photo essay on the tomato.
Do you notice how we often ask one another superlative questions?
“What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday morning?”
“Who has influenced you most this year?”
“What’s your favorite color?”
I squirm in my chair when I’m on the receiving end of this question. However, my squirmish behavior is not due to discomfort. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. I’m hit with a wave of curiosity and self-reflection, and it nearly sends me into a sensory tailspin.
“My favorite?” I ask myself. “My favorite?”
On Playing Favorites
More likely than not, my answer is paired with a line of reasoning or set of conditions, and before I know it, I’m explaining to a near stranger that the reason my favorite color is burnt orange is because I can find its hue in almost any fresh fruit or vegetable from late April until early October. From peaches and peppers to tomatoes and pumpkins, burnt orange tends to make itself known without ever begging to be the most seen. Tomato Canning
Choosing a favorite—the best of any sight, smell, taste, or feeling—feels nearly impossible at times because those sights and smells and tastes and feelings are constantly changing and evolving—just like we are and just like the Universe that built us intends for us to do. To answer, I’d have to share a bit more about myself, and I’d ask a bit more about you, too. Tomato Canning
And, perhaps this is the entire point of those superlative questions after all. The answers might teach us something new about one another. If only for a moment, they might result in a strengthened connection between the two of us, you and me.
So, let’s ask. The part(s) of our identities we’ll uncover is so much more than a simple answer. We’ll uncover stories about our artistic practices or our partnerships. Perhaps we’ll even uncover stories about our families or childhoods.
For example, if you ask me the question, “What is your favorite meal?” I would have an immediate answer. The answer would be the same as it’s been since I was young enough to have never heard of the word “metabolism” yet old enough to know good food. I’d tell you that, unequivocally, my favorite meal in the world is my Grandma Trudy’s chili. Tomato Canning
A Tomato Canning Story
I’d tell you how my Grandma Trudy made her chili from tomatoes grown in cool, dark dirt behind her two-story farmhouse in the Ohio countryside. Near summer’s end, she’d collect any tomatoes that remained in her garden to wash, blanch, peel, can, and store away for the cooler season ahead. Tomato Canning
I’d tell you about how, when those cooler months inevitably arrived, she’d tell me to walk down to her basement to retrieve a jar of canned tomatoes. And I’d tell you that, at the time, this was an incredibly scary task because the stairs were made of uneven stone, the ceilings were low, and just as I would leave the kitchen and enter the basement, she’d say with spark of humor, “Don’t bump your head, and watch out for spiders.”
As you can imagine, the retrieval of that jar of canned tomatoes was a brave quest in and of itself for a young girl with poor vision and an irrational fear of spiders. But, I kept obeying. I kept walking down those uneven stairs to retrieve a jar of canned tomatoes despite the fact that, at any moment, I might see a daddy long leg scurry across the cement floor because I took immense comfort in what would come next.
I knew that I’d walk safely back up the stairs and pass the jar of canned tomatoes off to my grandma. She’d twist its silver ring to the left, pop its sealed top, and pour those tomatoes into a warming pot on the stove just before adding her chili powder, beans, onions, and more. The warming pot would become an aromatic symphony of smells and flavors, and that symphony is precisely what would soon become a bowl of my favorite meal in the entire world right in front of me.
I’d begin to wrap up by telling you how I’d rush over to her wooden dining room table with quilted placemats and expect that my Grandpa Don would meet me there at any moment, too. Together, we’d await my Grandma Trudy’s chili, made with tomatoes grown in cool, dark dirt behind her two-story farmhouse in the Ohio countryside. Tomato Canning
I’d end by telling you how, to this day, the smell of chili reminds me of this exact scene. Every. Single. Time. I’d tell you how the taste of chili allows me to be with and speak with my Grandma Trudy and Grandpa Don in the quiet of my own mind. I’d tell you how a bowl of chili encourages me to see and taste and smell and remember the land on which they grew food and nurtured along the way while they, all along, quietly hoped I might do the same.
Making Grandma Trudy’s Tomatoes
I invite you to create and enjoy your own version of my Grandma Trudy’s Canned Whole Tomatoes. Canning tomatoes is a wonderful introduction to canning if you’re doing so for the first time this season. You’ll be elated to see your pantry begin to fill with food you thoughtfully purchased and preserved.
Due to their hearty nature and popularity, you’ll always be able to find fresh tomatoes at your local farmers’ market. Canned whole tomatoes can be used to create soups, sauces, salsas, and more!
Other Local Milk Tomato Recipes You Might Enjoy:
Georgia Varozza | The Amish Canning Cookbook
Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine | Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving
Clemson University | To Acidify or Not To Acidify
North Dakota State University | Why Add Lemon Juice to Tomatoes and Salsas Before Canning
MyRecipes | How to Core a Tomato
Chelsea J. O’Leary is a Nashville-based artist who practices photography, canning, and curiosity-driven conversation. She explores photography through both a film and digital format, and she cans seasonal fruits and vegetables as both a celebration and an ode to her family’s history of farming, preserving, and remaining in partnership with the Midwestern land on which they resided. Read more about her practices here.