The stories I write for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are often about how I find connections between food and community. Most of these conversations and musings have been in the context of my international travels, but I have also connected through food with communities stateside.
Recently, my friend Bernie Wong invited me to lunch to his hometown of Carrollton, Georgia. After enjoying a delicious lunch, Bernie introduced me to a local tradition that reaffirmed the way that I looked at food preservation.
Every year, nine families in this Georgia town pool their resources to buy 750 pounds of the freshest peaches. For an entire week, one of their homes becomes a production facility, resulting in peach jam, peach barbecue sauce, peach chutney, peach pie filling and peach preserves. One group is tasked with peeling, pitting and cutting peaches. Another sterilizes bottles. A third does the cooking.
By the end of this five-day community gathering, they had made 1,200 jars of canned peach goods. I felt fortunate to go home with a box of the bespoke canned goods. I marveled that collectively, with hands delicately fragranced with peaches, we had created something that would provide endless nourishment and delight.
It is moments such as these that give me a wonderful sense of belonging that’s exemplified in the cultural expression of Southern hospitality. As I wrote in my cookbook, “My Two Souths,” about the connection between Southern India and the American South: “These two Souths are over 9,000 miles apart and would seem to be in separate universes. Surprisingly, I have found their shared aspects — a warm, humid climate, abundant produce varieties, expanses of rice acreage, and busy coastal communities along with a spirit of sharing, a gift for entertaining and storytelling, a talent for creating bounty out of an often modest pantry, and a sincere embrace of simplicity — blend easily in my South by South cuisine. These combined southern cultures, which value gathering family and friends around a festive table, and my abiding appreciation of the expressive capabilities of cherished foods are the touchstones of my cuisine.”
The Carrollton “peach extravaganza” was one of the greatest authentically local examples of a communal food endeavor that I’ve ever witnessed. These homemade treats are stored for later use as gifts to friends or family or whenever there is a need for comfort food. In our modern world, there’s something magical about enjoying something that was handcrafted, cooked slow and low, and by people you know, despite that a store-bought version is quick, convenient and readily available at the supermarket.
The history of communities coming together for canning and preserving food for the harsher winter months has a long tradition in the U.S. and, frankly, is a dying art. It reminded me of my own upbringing in coastal India, and the tradition of fisher women preserving dishes in the form of savory spiced pickles and condiments, and sweet mango and coconut-pineapple jams during the abundant season to make it through scarcity in the later seasons.
As a way of saying thanks to Dennis Landon, who drives down to Carrollton every year from Wisconsin to lead this nine-family peach-canning enterprise, I taught him how to make my mother’s clove-tomato jam recipe.
The simplicity of the components in this recipe belies the wonderfully sophisticated flavors that result after the tomatoes and spices have cooked down. A dollop of this spiced tomato preserve becomes a ruby-colored jewel when served along with roasted lamb or venison. Tomato Clove Jam also adds a bit of brilliance to a grilled cheese sandwich made with sharp cheddar on sourdough bread.
When my mother made these preserves, I would find reasons to meander through the kitchen just to catch a whiff of the heady clove and the sweet aroma of the tomatoes as they cooked down in a slow, low boil. I now find my son Ethan drawn to the same mysteriously alluring scent, ditching his backpack and propping himself up at the counter to watch me prepare this recipe. Serving Tomato Clove Jam never fails to flood my heart with sweet memories.
As Dennis smeared the clove-tomato jam over warm, puffy as a cloud biscuits, he graciously offered to teach me the finer arts of canning if I would join him at his home in Madison, Wisconsin, for his annual cherry-canning sessions that he calls “Cherry Jubilee.” Two weeks later, Ethan and I found ourselves on a two-day adventure to learn the intricacies of sourcing and canning Washington and Wisconsin cherries with Dennis and his cherry-loving friends.
Dennis is a nurse by profession, but his passion for food and preservation was clear in his basement’s nearly endless shelves dotted with jars and pots of preserved green beans, roasted pumpkins, raspberries, tomatoes, and of course, cherries.
Dennis and Bernie’s generosity of spirit has reminded me of the community that exists around us, often right in our own backyards. Next year, I might just gather a couple of families and friends and have a peach extravaganza of my own.
Asha Gomez is an Atlanta chef and the author of the cookbook “My Two Souths” and the forthcoming “Color Full: A World of Bright Flavors From My Kitchen,” to be published in spring 2020.
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