Shortly after my parents met, my grandmother Donaldson invited my mother to dinner and served homemade tomato juice. Mother sipped the ruby liquid flavored with a hint of cloves that tickled her nose. Unlike the bland tomato juice she had previously experienced, the chopped onions, white pepper, and apple cider vinegar added a snap to each swallow, and their zest lingered on her tongue.
My grandmother had endured the Great Depression while raising four sons. During those lean years, she had discovered how to enhance an everyday beverage and make something special.
My parents soon became engaged, so who knows what part that tomato juice episode played in bringing about their marriage? But I like to think of it as one food that linked their hearts.
Throughout my childhood, the story of my grandmother's tomato juice often came up during family dinner conversations. But I never tasted the concoction because by then my elderly grandmother no longer filled the blue Mason jars in her basement.
I regretted the loss when others described its flavor. For me, the taste of the juice became an unexperienced treasure whose mystique expanded over the years, and although my mother canned tomatoes every fall, for some reason, she had never asked for the family recipe. But after my grandmother passed away, Mother found her handwritten instructions tucked away in a collection of recipes. Her eyes brightened as she reminisced about that first sip of juice, and she pocketed the card.
The following fall, when I arrived home from school, I smelled hot tomatoes. The scent of vinegar and cloves drew me to the kitchen. My mother had chopped and cooked onions, pureéd the tomatoes, and stirred in the remaining ingredients listed in my grandmother's hand. A cluster of quart jars filled with a deep-red liquid glowed on the kitchen counter.
That evening, my mother served each of us a small glass of juice. My brother, who was not an adventurous eater, gingerly tasted his and declared it "all right." I inhaled the spicy fragrance and sipped. The vinegar and cloves added a bite to the sweetness, and I loved the idea that at last, I was experiencing a moment shared by my grandparents and parents.
After that encounter, the juice appeared before celebratory dinners such as Thanksgiving or Easter and provided a touch of elegance.
The summer before I wed, I took up canning and cooked a batch of tomato juice. Unlike my mother, who was introduced to the family treasure before her marriage, my husband, John, did not taste the blend until after our wedding. We had invited guests over to share dinner, so I served the juice as an appetizer and watched John's reaction.
"That's really good," he said as he paused to savor the flavors. "You need to can more of this."
So every fall, I simmer the same vegetables that my grandmother and mother cooked and seal the steaming liquid into Mason jars. I tend to serve the juice often and like to watch folks' reactions. And daily, I draw from my grandmother's examples and seek to discover simple ways that transform both meals and life from the ordinary into the memorable.