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Sunday, August 31, 2008

In which I learn to love factory farming and food processing

For awhile now, I've had this joke going on with my nearest and dearest, one of those jokes that's totally not funny, except that it is, because what on earth can you do, really, besides laugh? The joke concerns polar bears. Specifically, the joke requires that you measure and weigh all of your daily activities based on the presumed numbers of polar bears killed or saved by your actions. So. Prepare your meal from a preponderance of locally grown ingredients? You've just saved three polar bears! Forget to turn off the light when you leave the room? A polar bear sickens and dies. Drive 60 miles each way (including 28 minutes stopped dead in traffic) to purchase consumer goods, all of which have been individually shrink-wrapped BEFORE being placed in handfuls of plastic bags? Dead polar bears everywhere, baby.

Ha, ha. It's funny in context, I swear.


Anyway. In our continuing quest to get all those dead polar bears off our consciences, my friend Tall Kate and I have been talking to each other a lot about our mutual efforts to, you know, eat locally and stuff. (And also our efforts to NEVER LEAVE OUR HOUSES, because, dude, every time we so much as look at the ignition switch on our respective vehicles, another polar bear goes into critical condition.) Tall Kate's efforts to live well while saving maximum numbers of polar bears are tastily chronicled on her blog. Me, I am not chronicling my efforts, mostly because, um, you know, as long as we're still working on that whole "eating something besides just bread and pasta" thing, there's only so much dedication I can muster to the cause before I start to get twitchy and find myself throwing bags of mass-produced tortilla chips at any locavore I can find. Because when most of your family's diet consists of white flour and tortilla chips, well, it's not so much with the locally grown, you know? At least if you live in a region of the country that's not known for its purple fields of grain. Massachusetts is known for a lot of things, but purple fields of grain ain't one of 'em.

But there are things that are grown here in the Commonwealth, foods that my family DOES actually consume in measurable quantities. Well. Two things, really. Apples. And tomatoes. So last Friday, Tall Kate and I took it upon ourselves to single-handedly save an entire extended family of polar bears by attempting to can some locally grown tomatoes.

We convened at Tall Kate's house, and we are NOT EVEN GOING TO DISCUSS how many polar bears died because we drove over there. Kate had ready some 42 pounds of tomatoes, and a handy-dandy canning kit, containing all of your canning needs: a really big pot! A canning rack for the bottom of the pot! A funnel! Tongs! This cool magnetic wand for picking up the lids! Citric acid! And a book that told us how to do it!

Me, I brought half the canning jars, a large lobster pot that I own for no good reason except that it's a pretty blue color, and seasons one and two of the Muppet Show.

"Phantom," you say patiently (you are very patient), "you've lost me. What does the Muppet Show have to do with canning tomatoes?"

EVERYTHING, I answer. Because between us Tall Kate and I have four children ages seven and under, and all four of them were along for the ride.

Hour 1: Tomatoes are washed, peeled, and chopped in great quantities. We rapidly fill two good-sized pots on the stove, and wonder if we should have seeded those suckers first. The children, in the meantime, busy themselves with Legos and Playdoh.

Hour 2: We rinse jars and set them in the giant pot to sterilize. We note that we are about to run out of burners on the stove, and decide to consolidate the two good-sized pots of tomatoes into the lobster pot (which, did I mention, is a pretty color?). Before adding the cooked tomatoes to the lobster pot, we put them through a food mill. We wonder if it's a problem that the result appears to be tomato juice. Well, perhaps it will cook down? The children, in the meantime, turn on the first season of the Muppet Show. LG shows off his ability to recite the entire "Good grief, the comedian's a bear" sketch from memory.

Hour 3: The pot with the jars in it sure is slow to reach a boil, ain't it? Hmmm. And that tomato juice shows no signs of thickening. Luckily we still have half of the tomatoes left. We are immersed in peeling, seeding, and dicing the remaining tomatoes when Kate has the presence of mind to notice that the kids are getting all Lord of the Flies despite the calming influence of the Muppet Show. We order takeout pizza as a prophylactic measure.

Hour 4: More peeling, seeding, and dicing. The diced tomatoes are cooked for awhile in their very own pot before being dumped in with the tomato juice that's still bubbling away in an obliging fashion. I ask Kate if she's starting to see tomatoes before her eyes even when she's looking at something else. She closes her eyes. "Nope. Not yet," she says. Clearly we have a long way to go. Meanwhile, the children consume an entire box of popsicles, two takeout pizzas, and a styrofoam box full of mozzarella sticks. Kate and I debate whether the mere presence of the styrofoam box kills off all the polar bears that we were attempting to save through this debacle endeavor.

Hour 5: We fill the first batch of quart jars without incident, unless you count "laughing so hard that you have to sit down on the kitchen floor" as an incident. There's still more peeling, seeding, and dicing to be done, however. There are discarded tomato parts all over Kate's kitchen, and I look like I have showered in tomato juice. The boys decide to abandon us for the yard, while the girls (who are too young to be trusted not to run into the street, and thus have to remain inside with teh grown-ups) take turns announcing that they are (a) tired, and (b) in need of another popsicle. Kate says, "How did they DO this in the old days, before DVDs? How did they keep the kids from ending up in the family well or something?"

Hour 6: We determine that it is just barely possible to fit a second batch of quart jars in the pot Kate's husband generally uses for making beer. This is good, because the first batch needs to sit in its pot for awhile even after the heat has been turned off, and it is clear that Our Time Is Now Limited. The rest of the tomatoes are loaded into the jars and placed in the beer pot for processing. We extract the first batch of jars and give them puppy-dog eyes until their lids make that little pinging sound that means they might actually seal. Alas, they need to sit undisturbed for another 24 hours to seal the deal, so to speak. Kate and I calculate how many polar bears will have to die when one of us has to travel to the other's house to pick up or deliver my share of the jars.

Hour 7: The second batch of jars is processing. Kate and I take the girls outside to join their brothers, and we collapse on the grass, admiring the tomato splatters on our clothes and skin, and appreciating all the modern farming and processing technology that assures that we do NOT have to do this every damn day for the length of harvest season if we don't want our families to starve to death. Kate's husband arrives home and is kind enough to take it on faith that we have not been lying in the grass all afternoon. BB cries when it's time to get back in our polar-bear-killing conveyance, and yells that she wants to stay here FOREVER. I look around in case there are any family wells I could throw her in.

Twenty-four hours later, more or less: Kate calls to tell me the joyful news. All of the jars have properly sealed. Eureka! We agree that we want to do it all again next year, only double the quantities. Because we love polar bears just that much. And also because we are COMPLETELY CRAZY.

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