Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

‘The autumn of my tomatoes’

Sarah trades one kind of work for another

September 30, 2008

It is fall, and it is resplendent, hard to wrap my head around the concept of soft steady rains, cool mornings, sundown before 7 p.m. when the farmers’ market and my own garden are overflowing with still-ripening tomatoes, the last of the peaches, heady with their ripe scent, and still a procession of blueberries, zucchini, peppers.

I cock my head at the local organic acorn squash at the neighborhood produce market, amazed that it is their time. I cannot imagine, but the day will come — it could be only weeks away — when these begin to fill my meal plans.

Because today, this moment, for weekends to come, all I can see is tomatoes. I have spent many a Sunday afternoon or a Tuesday night these past several weeks, standing apron-clad on one foot at my kitchen sink, delicately peeling ripe tomatoes one by one as their watery juice drips over my cutting board, into my sink, pools on my counter, dribbles on my stockinged feet.

I have put up 26 pints of tomato sauce (20.5 red, 3.5 orange, 3 yellow) and a motley assortment of tomato-cardamom jam, tomato-jalapeño chutney, tomato relish, and oh, a deep smoky Indian-spiced tomato chutney. Though one shelf of my pantry is stacked past its limit, another is rimmed with sweet and savory jams, and I am always finding pint and half-pint jars stuffed between crocks on the counter and behind half-empty bags of whole-wheat flour. Despite all that, I feel that I do not have even half enough.

Lovely heirloom tomatoes needing to be preserved.

One night, when I am finishing up the last of 50 pounds of organic tomatoes bought the weekend of my birthday, I am struck dizzy by the realization that I cannot put up 78 pints of tomato sauce (my estimate of how much the family would need to last until next July) and a few dozen jars of various tomatoey relishy concoctions. That is, I cannot do it and work a 40-and-then-some-hours-a-week job.

My head reels with the poverty of it all. My children are clamoring for my attention in the morning as I juggle breakfast and the dreaded email backlog. At dinnertime I have too often chosen to finish tasks, leaving quesadillas (with local raw-milk cheddar) for the boys’ nourishment, eating my own dinner in yawning solitude much later. On Sundays the never-begun catchup work hangs over me as I fill the water bath pot to process my preserves. It is too much.

The next week, quite by happenstance, I discover that I am “voluntarily separating” from my full-time position. Before my boss and I have even agreed upon a date, I have secured enough freelance work to pay the mortgage and buy more fruit.

It is the autumn of my tomatoes.

On Thursday afternoon, I receive an email from HR; my separation has been processed (they work fast as blazes). Though I won’t be turning in my laptop and company ID for another four weeks, that night I search craigslist to find the best prices on the wide-mouthed pint jars I like to use for tomato sauce. I make a preservation spreadsheet. I add a few lines to my next month’s family budget, after “computer” and “new glasses” and “coffee.” Jars. $57.50. Tomatoes. $100.

I have arranged it so I will have three paychecks between now and my last day of work. I find that my ways to spend that money are more than ample, and I must prepare for the inevitable gap between payroll and the quixotic pace of freelance income. It is late. I pad into the kitchen, making myself sourdough oatmeal toast with cultured butter, fancy salt, and slices of pear from a lovely friend’s tree. I am drinking hojicha tea because I am low on cash and out of coffee. At my laptop again, I add another line to my budget. Fancy salt, $20.25. I watch the difference between “income” and “expenses” get ever smaller.

And I think of this autumn, a winding down of my corporate life and a gearing up of my life as a mother, baker, preserver, homesteader, writer, keeper of chickens. I think of the tomato soups and pasta sauces I will make in February and March. I determinedly set to write the first chapter of the book I have been dreaming of writing.

“It was the autumn of my tomatoes,” I begin. “I was rich beyond all measure.”

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Sep 30, 2008 at 4:27 PM PDT

You go girl. I quit my full-time job a couple months back to spend time with my family, cook, garden, help with my husband’s farming business, and yes, process tomatoes. Since I have three enormous freezers in my garage (most of the time full of our meat), I skipped the canning portion of your tomato journey and went straight to freezer bags. But I do want to can some things, like dilly beans. Gotta get on that before the season is over...Really, life is too short to work your butt off and miss summers with your boys and making time to can tomatoes....I wish you luck in your new self-employed journey!

2. by Fasenfest on Oct 1, 2008 at 10:34 AM PDT

Welcome home. By hook or by crook we are going there.

3. by Krista on Oct 2, 2008 at 11:25 AM PDT

Celebrating, away up here on the island, right along with you. Celebrating the richness in your life and your ability to accept it. Love.

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