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Making Fresh, Old World-Style Tomato Sauce

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Crates of fresh plum tomatoes become cases of sauce in one loud, messy, all-day family affair.

Every August, we line the floor of my father's two-car garage in Mahopac, New York, with plastic tarps, set out several crates of fresh plum tomatoes, and get to work. My grandmother Maria—everyone calls her Nonna Mia—made fresh tomato sauce as a girl in Seminara, in the Calabrian region of Italy. She came to the U.S. about 40 years ago and still makes sauce every summer. In the last 10 years, the operation has grown from 2 people in the basement to about 20 in the driveway: grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and their wives, little cousins. Nonna Mia is in charge, and she runs a pretty tight ship.

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Fontana

I have the privilege of ordering the tomatoes from an Italian deli near my home in Yonkers. We arrive early in our grubbiest clothes and flip-flops. The girls tie on matching bandannas for a bit of "old world" aesthetic. Then it's time to sort, rinse, and cut the tomatoes. We boil them in huge pots until soft, then strain them through a large basket lined with an old tablecloth—the only things we've found that really gets all the water out.

One thing that has changed is the food mill: We finally, thankfully, got an electric one. The tomatoes go through once; then we take any skins that get caught in the machine and pass them through again. My stepmom brings a platter of sandwiches and some wine for lunch, then a round of espresso later on to keep us going. We put the sauce back on the heat to boil until my grandmother says it's ready. She's the only one allowed to fill the jars; my dad and brother are the only ones strong enough to seal them properly. Anyone who grows basil in their garden brings a bunch to drop into the jars. Fresh basil is the overall aroma of the day.

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Fontana

In the evening we share a big meal of (what else?) pasta with tomato sauce and a tomato-basil salad. Once everything is clean, we divvy up the jars depending on the size of each family, and I'm set for the rest of the year.

You feel a bit broken by the end of the day, a bit hot and sticky. But it's worth it. My family members are mostly immigrants. I get to tap into something that I wasn't a part of before they came here, something that connects them to home. The group keeps growing, and it's insane when all of us are together, but I wouldn't change it for anything.

View Recipe: Basic Tomato Sauce

2 Steps to Perfect Sauce

Strain and mill for sauce with big tomato flavor and a rich consistency.

Straining TomatoesExtracting Tomato SeedsBasic Tomato Sauce
Photo: Jennifer Causey; Photo: Jennifer Causey; Photo: Jennifer Causey

1. Strain the softened tomatoes through the cheesecloth or paper towels so you lose only the diluted tomato water—important for a full-bodied sauce.

2. A food mill extracts seeds and skins while pushing pulp through. You can also use it for fluffy mashed potatoes, silky soups, and perfectly textured applesauce.