First, I must prepare. At the farmers' market, I select what seem to me the best tomatoes red and plump and promising. Next, I look over the peppers, choosing six sweet red ones and a dozen red hot ones. Their shiny skins are smooth to the touch.
Finally, I buy onions, their flavor wrapped loosely in thin brown skin. Eight of them will join the tomatoes and peppers, vinegar, and seasonings in my chili sauce.
Before we moved to our smaller, urban property, I grew what I needed myself. It felt right then, standing in my garden, pushing aside foliage and finding the perfect vegetables for this project. Now I buy from farmers who picked their crops hours before. I remember my mother strolling among the selections at the market and choosing carefully. Like her, I continue to seek the best.
I keep her recipe in a special place. When I take it out, it feels as though I greet an old friend. It has been a kind of companion all my life.
At home, I remove the huge silvery canner from its basement shelf. Next, I assemble pint jars. Some still wear their gleaming metal bands that will hold the lid. Although I packed them away carefully, I scrub them to ensure their cleanliness.
During 35 years of marriage, I have assembled boxes of jars and lids as I canned our garden's vegetables and fruits. Most important, I have that family recipe, given to me to continue the tradition.
The chili sauce I make connects me to Mother and to others in my family, long gone. I hear them ask my mother, "Where is your chili sauce? I'd prefer that on my hamburger." My father smothered his breakfast eggs with it.
Whenever I prepare to follow the recipe, I remember helping Mother. She did not actually need my assistance. But she must have realized I needed the practice in order to make the sauce myself some day.
I begin as she did, dipping the tomatoes in hot water to make their skins come off more easily. As the red orbs bob in the sink, I hear Mother say: "Go out to the garden and find one more good-sized tomato."
She was always well-prepared. The day before she planned to cook her chili sauce, she peeled the tomatoes. That day, the one prior to the actual canning, my father and I anticipated the flavorful result of Mother's efforts. It seems as if it were yesterday that my mother's inviting chili-sauce aroma filled every room of the house, tantalizing and teasing.
When I prepare the onions and the peppers, I grind them in my cast-iron grinder. As I grab the wooden handle and crank it, I see my mother turning the handle.
Just after I started my chili sauce cooking this day, my youngest child called from her California home. "I am making chili sauce," I told her.
"Oh, wow. I wish I could smell it," she said and reminisced about coming home from school as a young child and smelling the sauce from the sidewalk on the corner. "The house smelled so wonderful for a few days," she said. I remembered that that was true all during my childhood, as well.
Today is not simply the day I fill waiting jars with the taste of summer we will savor all year long; it is the stirring of warm memories. My grandmother and her mother before her canned every fall. As a child, I explored their basement food pantries lined with home-canned fruit, tomatoes, and pickles.
I knew that, at some family dinner during the coming winter, I would taste some of those treasures.
Perhaps my mother's recipe came from one of them. I do not know. Someone perfected the recipe and gave it to the next in line. And we continue to follow it, handing it down in a chain of labor and care for our families.
I imagine that my own daughters may someday follow the same directions I do today. My older daughter inherited her grandmother's dark-blue pan for canning.
My daughters have machines that purée, liquefy, and chop fine. When they make chili sauce, they will use their own chosen methods. I like to make it by hand, the way generations before us did. We chilimakers remain a part of one another through the effort we expend to prepare ingredients and follow the treasured recipe.
Perhaps, someday a daughter of one of my daughters will decide to engage in the family tradition. Then her today will merge with all those yesterdays, and her family will taste the past.
And when she stirs the simmering concoction, I hope she thinks of me.
30 ripe tomatoes
8 medium onions
6 green sweet peppers (Mother preferred a rich red color, so she used red sweet peppers)
12 red hot peppers
3 tablespoons salt
4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 quart cider vinegar
Scald tomatoes in boiling water to loosen skins. Peel and cut into quarters. Chop fine or coarsely grind onions. Put vinegar and onions in large nonaluminum pan with tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Seed and chop fine (or coarsely grind) peppers. Add peppers and other ingredients to pan. Simmer until it is a little thicker than ketchup, about three to four hours.
Clean jars thoroughly. (Recipe yields 6 to 10 pints.) Put jars and lids in hot water. Carefully drain and then fill hot jars with warm chili sauce. Clean off any drips from jar rim. Place warm lid on jar top and screw on ring.
Place warm jars in rack of canning pan. Lower jars into water so they are completely covered. Bring to a boil. Boil for 25 minutes. Lift rack. Refrigerate any jars that fail to seal.
Use the sauce wherever you'd use a sweet or spicy sauce: Hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages in a hoagy roll, and eggs all taste better to our family if adorned with this sauce.