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 feeling, smell, or taste —feels nearly impossible at times because those feelings and smells and tastes 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
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 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 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, and onions. 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. 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 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, feel, 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!
- Wide-mouth glass canning jars, lids, and rings | Pint Size
- Water-boiling canning pot
- Jar lifter
- Two large pots
- Two large bowls
- Towel or drying rack
- Ripe tomatoes | I used Bradley tomatoes because Bradley tomatoes were the tomatoes my favorite vendor at the farmers’ market had for sale this week.
- Lemon Juice
- Sugar optional
- Prepare your water-boiling canning pot. Fill your canning pot with water. Place your rack inside your canning pot. Place the jars and rings on top of the rack. Submerge the rack, jars, and rings, allowing the jars to completely fill with water. Ensure the water level is ultimately about one inch above your jars. Place your lid on your canning pot, and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. This step not only prepares your water-boiling canning pot or water bath, but it also sterilizes your jars. (Boiling water may harm the sealant on your lids, so you can sterilize your lids specifically by placing them in a saucepan in 180° water for 5 minute.)
- Wash and blanch your tomatoes. Fill one large pot with water, and bring to a boil. As you’re waiting for the water to begin boiling, fill one of your large bowls with ice water. (Both the boiling water and ice water need to be ready at the same time.) Once the water is boiling, drop your tomatoes into the water for 30 seconds, one layer of tomatoes at a time. After 30 seconds, you ought to see the skin of your tomatoes begin to crack. Remove your tomatoes from the boiling water, and immediately submerge them in your ice water. Allow them to completely cool.
- Core your tomatoes. Removing the core from your tomatoes will also give you a starting point from which to begin peeling.
- Peel the skin from your tomatoes.
- Briefly cook your tomatoes. Fill your second large pot with water. Allow your peeled tomatoes to simmer for 5 minutes.
- Ready your sterilized jars. Remove your jars and rings from your canning pot, and remove your lids from your saucepan. They’re going to be hot to the touch, so use your jar lifter or anything you prefer that protects your hands. Remove any water that still remains in your jars.
- Add lemon juice to your jars. If you are using pint-size jars, add one tablespoon of lemon juice. This is an incredibly important step because your lemon juice behaves as an acidifier and keeps your canned product safe over time. While it’s not essential to your final dish, you can add one teaspoon of sugar to offset the flavor of the lemon juice.
- Pack your tomatoes. Take one tomato at a time out of the simmering water. Pack your tomatoes tightly into your jars, and ladel the water from your simmering pot over the tomatoes. Leave a small gap between your water and the top of the jar. (You can cut the tomatoes in half if you have enough space for ½ a tomato but not a whole.)
- Tidy up. Wipe your jars clean, especially the rim of each jar, with a warm, damp towel.
- Tighten. Add your lids and rings, and tighten almost all the way.
- Seal. Submerge your tomato-filled jars in the water-boiling canning pot, and place the lid back onto your canning pot. Allow your jars to boil for 40 minutes. (If you are using quart-size jars, allow your jars to boil for 45-50 minutes.)
- Cool. Remove your jars from the water bath, and set them on a towel or drying rack to cool.
- Store and enjoy. Once cooled, ensure your jars have sealed properly. You can do this via two ways: one, listen for each jar to “pop,” an audible indication it has sealed or two, push the center of the lid to see if it pops up and down. If it doesn’t, it’s sealed! Tighten your ring the rest of the way, and add your sealed jar to your pantry. If the lid does pop up and down, it did not seal, but it’s okay! Simply put that jar in the refrigerator, and enjoy it within one month.
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.
My name is Beth, Elizabeth Evelyn to be exact. A native Tennessean, I was born in the South.
I am the author behind Local Milk Blog.
Local milk is a journal devoted to home cookery, travel, family, and slow living—to being present & finding sustenance of every kind.
It’s about nesting abroad & finding the exotic in the everyday.
Most of all it’s about the perfection of imperfections and seeing the beauty of everyday, mundane life.