“Be sure to remove any blemishes,” my friend Maria tells us on an unseasonably warm September Saturday. Six of us – three couples – are sitting on garden chairs arranged in a circle in her yard.
Feet planted firmly apart, leaning forward with elbows on our knees, we each hold a small chef knife. In less than one hour, we’ve become adept at using them to core and quarter ripe tomatoes. Juice and seeds run down our fingers in watery red rivulets as we toss the quartered tomatoes into a large aluminum pot.
Maria’s husband, Nino, is on the deck manning a large gas burner. On it sits another huge pot that looks like a witch’s cauldron and it’s filled with bubbling, simmering tomatoes. Nino’s face is flushed, both from the heat of the day and the burner, as he diligently stirs what will become our prized, homemade tomato sauce.
That was five years ago when I asked Maria if she would teach Ben and I how to make homemade tomato sauce. Not only did she agree, but she invited our other friends to join in. Now, it’s an annual ritual that we all look forward to and Maria is the one who makes it special.
Nino and I were friends long before he met and married Maria. In high school, we were part of a small, tightly-knit group. You might say we came of age together and people are amazed that we’re still so close all these years later. (In fact, most of us were sitting in the garden chairs in their yard that Saturday.) But at the time, we were all very protective of each other, and newcomers who joined us as girlfriends or boyfriends were closely scrutinized. I know, it sounds as if we were part of a closed clique. To some extent, I guess we were, although not one that others were clamouring to join. But when Maria came along, with her big smile and even bigger heart, she slid seamlessly into our group as if she’d always been a part of it.
And now she’s the driving force behind our annual ritual. Every September we meet on a Saturday morning at Maria’s house with our bushels of tomatoes in tow. We start early, and under Maria’s benevolent direction, we work through the day: cutting, coring, cooking, straining and pouring steaming hot tomato sauce into prepared Mason jars. But, really, the sauce is a bonus – the real joy is spending the day together. We talk, we tease each other, we have a glass of wine (or 2 or ….) and we have a great time.
We all have the same objective, of course: to make a gold-standard batch of homemade sauce and nobody takes that more to heart than Maria. So, through it all, she is subtly directing the sauce project and keeping us on track. But we never even notice that we’re being managed or directed because she does it with such humour and tact! Her background is finance and she has an impressive job with a lot of responsibility, but I think she’s missed her calling. She’s a people person, and I bet she’d be fantastic in human resources.
Every year, someone brings up another one of Maria’s friends, who also makes sauce with family and friends. And somehow, their group always manages to produce twice the number of jars we do. We can never figure out how they do it but here’s how Maria summarizes it: “Yes, they might end up with more sauce than we do, but is it as good? And do they laugh? Do they play guitar and sing together? Do they have as much fun as we do? I don’t think so.”
Our ritual always ends the say way: For dinner, Maria cooks onions and garlic, adds our freshly-made sauce and lets it gently simmer. The rest of us clean up and set the table for dinner in anticipation of the big taste test. When we gather around the table and take our first mouthful of pasta smothered in sauce, we always groan and declare it the best batch ever. Can’t wait for next September.
Cause close to her heart:
Not sure this is a cause per se, but something that I hold dear. At the tender age of 17, while working in a senior citizens residence, I came to see the deep loneliness of the residents. These people that lived, worked, brought forth families and contributed to society, were now alone and often made to feel valueless. Their days were spent waiting…..while all they needed was someone to speak with them, ask them questions about their lives, ask them for advice on life in general, or just have someone to sit with. The time I am now spending with my Mom has reaffirmed the loneliness they feel and how often they are made to feel that they are of no value in today’s society.
Being alone, with no one to love in my old age.
Bread, pizza, pasta….anything made of dough…with obvious results!
What makes her laugh:
I love to laugh…so I find things to make me laugh. I attend “Just for Laughs” festival, read books that make me laugh (though not easy to find) and get together with friends. I have had some of my best laughing bouts just sitting around with my friends.
I may have too many to list! And that’s it…having so many rules to live by!