Canning Tomatoes [essay] by Cathy Warner

My mother and I crouch in a tomato field off Road 98, pulling and twisting red globes from thick hairy stalks, gently setting them into generic black yard bags that we heft down the rows, bumping against our bare calves, which are yellow from the tomatoes’ pollen sweat and the pesticide powder that pours in vapor trails from the belly of the crop dusters early in the season.

It’s late August in the Sacramento Valley and the automatic harvesting machine manned by its crew of migrant workers will roll through this field tomorrow. Today, the farmer and his wife—parents of my high school friend—have invited my freshly-divorced mother and me to pick our fill.

So, like post-biblical gleaners in the growing heat, we fill our plastic bags with thick-skinned canning tomatoes and load them into the back of my mother’s Pinto until, wiping the sweat from our faces with the backs of our sticky yellowed garden gloves, my mother decides we’ve picked enough. I wince as I sit on the hot vinyl car seat, my dusty thighs burning. My mother starts the car and we thump down the dirt access alongside an irrigation ditch toward the asphalt road, the windows open, the dust and tang of hot tomatoes filling our nostrils.

At home, wearing yellow Playtex gloves, we wash, blanch, and peel the scalding tomatoes from their skins. We drop them into canning jars, sprinkle in salt, set on lids, twist on rings, and set the lidded jars in the water bath until they’ve steamed themselves sealed. In years past, my mother has cooked with Lady Lee canned tomatoes. This year, she bought a canning kettle and jars. An investment for future use, since there is no alimony from this, her second, dissolved marriage, and her new job—medical receptionist at a clinic where another high school friend’s father is a doctor who hired my mother, who had no experience in the field—pays just above minimum wage.

Together my mother and I put up dozens of jars of tomatoes, and during the coming year, she will turn each into either spaghetti sauce or enchilada sauce with a dash of McCormick’s seasoning. Biting into the tomatoes we canned ourselves, wiping their residue from our mouths, we feel proud of our efforts. Through the fall, winter, and spring eating the rich sauce folded into pasta and tortillas dilutes the taste of our new poverty, our need for charity, until summer comes and we find ourselves in the blistering heat, kneeling in the farmer’s field, picking his tomatoes once again.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

Image by ChristopherZurnieden

Cathy Warner is a writer, editor, realtor, and home renovator in the Puget Sound area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and her short stories and essays have appeared in dozens of print journals and online venues including a Best American Essays nomination from Under the Sun, and a Pushcart Prize nomination from So To Speak. Her first book of poetry, Burnt Offerings, was published in 2014. Find her at