Outside, the tomato plants are suffering in the Louisiana summer. Leaves hang droopy and the flowers have quit turning into fruit at a time when other parts of the country are probably pulling in quite a harvest. I look at them with a little dismay, but not much. Actually, I smile, knowing from experience that they often come back once the heat dies down.
Last fall, my three cherry tomato plants woke up in October and started producing again, masses and masses of tiny yellow flowers everywhere. They had been so prolific that I had started making ripe tomato salads again in November!
The first week of December, we had our first warning of frost, with temperatures expected to dip down to 27 degrees. Usually, this merely means carrying in the begonias and basil for an overnight stay, but this year was not usual. With the frost approaching I counted hundreds of green tomatoes and wondered if I could save them somehow.
Auntie Leila’s Green Tomato Chutney recipe from her blog “Like Mother, Like Daughter” popped into my mind. Without delay I printed the recipe, noted which ingredients I had and which I needed, ran to Wal-mart for some more canning jars and vinegar, and enlisted my 8 year old to help me pick all those little tomatoes. For wages, I allowed him to pitch fast balls from the split or rotten tomatoes. Perhaps there was more baseball than harvesting going on, but I would have struggled to finish without him, squatting up and down, up and down in the sun.
The harvest yielded about 18 cups of fruit, sitting happily on the kitchen counter and looking more like a crop of green grapes. The slightest smile smirked my lips as I washed my hands. My eyebrows lifted in satisfaction as I scanned over the recipe one last time. Turning off the kitchen light, I glanced once more at my beautiful harvest, left them on the counter next to the recipe, and went to sleep assuming that I could knock out the chutney in the morning. Naïve optimism: that’s my personality.
I didn’t consider the reality of washing all those cute little ovals. Cute, yes. Efficient to maneuver, no. All those slippery little green tomatoes had to be held in place on the cutting board by someone’s hands. All that fruit had to be quartered by a knife sticky with juice in someone’s sticky hands. Stretching my fingers, I looked at the oven clock and frowned. It was the time I thought I’d be finished, but instead I was just getting the ingredients into the pot.
The pot proved to be a perfect incarnation of my stubbornness. I was about half way down the list of ingredients… honey, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, apples… when I realized that the ingredients were taking up more than half of my yellow enamel dutch oven. The only bigger pot that I own - my big stock pot - was already simmering a bath of glass canning jars. The jars needed to be recently sanitized to prevent spoiling and also needed to be hot coming out of the water in order to receive the hot chutney, less the shocking change in temperature cause any cracking. So I couldn’t use the stock pot to also cook the chutney. With a sigh and a glance at the clock, I determined not to split the recipe in half and cook two batches, doubling the remaining time.
Part of my personality is that I don’t require 98% certainty that something will work before I try it. I don’t even require 75% certainty. I may look like an average homeschooling teacher on the outside, but on the inside I’m hanging loose with the most chilled out Hawaiians. If there’s a 25% chance it might work, I say, let’s go for it!
So, I kept piling the ingredients into the yellow dutch oven, repeating in my head, they will cook down… they will cook down. Finally, with a slightly mounded hill of ingredients that only barely rose above the top of the pot, I added the spices and turned on the burner. Reaching back to the counter I grabbed the recipe to see how hot and how long, considering that other people, less adventurous people, might have looked at this information before turning on the flame. The recipe said to get it up to a boil and then turn it down to simmer. I sighed, staring at the bulging mound of raw ingredients. No way could I bring that up to boil until after it had cooked down a little. I turned the flame down to low, and exhaled a deep huff as I noted the digital numbers on the oven clock and set the timer for thirty minutes.
Two hours later the mixture, never having actually boiled or simmered, had settled below the yellow rim of my dutch oven, at least a good ¼ inch from the top. I nodded my head in victory, for this was progress, but since I had to leave for work, I turned it down even lower and asked my daughter to keep an eye on it. When I came home three hours later, the chutney mixture was closer to ½ an inch below the top. Now, this type of situation is where my bravery thrives. I would not walk into a haunted house, nor would I ride a roller coaster, but with the steely determination of Beowulf, I approached the stove.
“My heart is firm,
My hands calm: I need no hot
Words. Wait for me close by, my friends.”
Then Beowulf rose, still brave, still strong,
And with his shield at his side, and a mail shirt on his breast,
Strode calmly, confidently, toward the tower, under
The rocky cliffs: no coward could have walked there!
Despite the narrow margin of success in not bubbling my mixture up over the pot, I turned up the flame to high. If I didn’t get this chutney boiling and reduced quickly, I would be up until midnight. I don’t know about Beowulf, but I am worthless the next day if I stay up until midnight in the middle of the week.
Finally, after being washed, chopped up, soaked in a hot tub, and then boiled down in spices, those cheerful little green ovals turned into a dark rich orange relish. The satisfaction of pouring the thick fragrant mixture into the cans was only topped by the satisfaction of hearing the metal tops pop when I removed the cans from the water bath. The pop means the seal worked and the chutney would stay preserved until opened. The recipe says that this chutney adds zing if you have found that you made a bland meal. Auntie Leila’s family passed it around with a ham dinner, which brought just the right little touch of spirit to the meal.
As I picked the tomatoes, saving them from frozen death, I wondered how God plucks me from similar situations. I’m sure I often resent such a harvest, having no clue why God, in his infinite knowledge, is saving me from my comfortable situation.
As I swished the little green tomatoes around in the sink, the words of Psalm 50 reminded me, “wash me, O Lord, and I will be clean.”
As I sliced through the tiny tomatoes with my serrated knife, I considered how we little humans often need a painful surgery, cut open for the enlargement of our hearts. One of the prayers in the Canon of St. Paraskevi reads, “wound my soul with a longing for God.”
It’s all well and fine for me to know, standing in my kitchen, that the cutting and boiling down will eventually transform those tomatoes from something sour into a special delight. However, it is much harder to submit when God works the process of transformation in my life. This prayer from the same canon reminds me that I am not alone in the boiling sea of life.
The transformation of the afflicted and the relief of those in sickness art thou in truth, O Virgin Theotokos; save thy people and thy flock, thou who art the peace of the embattled and who art the calm of the storm-driven, then only protectress of those who believe.
After the storm of kitchen activity was over around 10:30 that night, I examined the finished jars of dark, jewel-colored chutney, ready to bring zing and spirit to future meals. Now, as I think back on that massive but successful undertaking, I pray that when I am in danger of dying, and God plucks me from my seemingly comfortable surroundings to save me and transform me, I would not fight against Him. I pray I can walk bravely like Beowulf into the unknown future. I hope I can remember that my own efforts don’t have even a 25% chance of success. However, God can make me into something filled with the Spirit. Something even with a little zing!