Tomato skins, nostalgia and the Holocaust

by CarlD

What do these things have in common? Rachel is working through an installation art project, which in its ‘primitive accumulation’ phase involved canning lots of tomatoes and drying their skins. The following are some incomplete thoughts she’s written pursuant to assembling an actual art work out of her materials. This is a work in progress; she is interested in feedback. Here’s Rachel:

Concepts and Daydreams:

I have 100 jars of tomatoes that I’ve canned. As I’ve been canning (a rather dull process overall) I’ve daydreamed different fictitious scenarios that could result in these 100 jars:

* It’s a science discovery. Archaeologists uncover this stash of primitive food rations and put it on display for the public. Or anthropologists (of the old imperialist regime) discover this tribe of people called “Farmers”. They hypothesize about the tools used, etc. They show video footage of the strange customs. (I watched a documentary about head shrinking Indians of the Amazon that probably prompted this train of thinking.)

* An old woman who obsessively cans to ward off death. (playing with the idea of ritual and superstition)

* A person getting ready for the apocalypse by building and stocking a cold war era type bunker. (This one, and a bit of the one before it are based on my real life experiences with a Holocaust survivor named Helen who I knew as a teen. Helen’s son hired me to “clean” her house, saying that if she couldn’t get her life under control he would put her in a home. I had unique access to Helen’s small, filthy trailer stocked to the ceiling with junk that she just knew would come in handy when the next disaster hit (candles she made out of crayons, stacks of newspaper, magazines, half a room full of sweaters). She also collected animals and strategically left bags of their food around so that if she died they’d have food for a while and not eat her body—something she was really afraid of. Canning 100 jars of tomatoes is something Helen would’ve done if she’d found a good deal on tomatoes. Helen was obsessed with being totally in charge of her world, so to accomplish this she made her world very small—literally the confines of her trailer, which she rarely left. I never did get that house clean.)

* An old woman who copes with her anxieties about death and change by canning everything in her life—including her husband, cat, furniture, clothes, etc. She cans all winter long and by spring has filled her house with jars of household items and sits with them and enjoys how still they are.

These are just the stories I made up while I worked. I’m not sure that any of them go anywhere.

That said, I’m kind of into the idea of treating the cans and the skins as science objects. One thing I have yet to do for the jars is label them. I’ve been putting this off because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I could do this in a science format with the latin names and weights of things. I could put the skins in little sample jars and weigh them and label them.

I also think it would be interesting perhaps to make a Helen-type bunker filled with crap. Obsessive amounts of junk. What I’m interested in is nostalgia and how it is a form of controlling our worlds. Helen was extremely nostalgic about her things, no matter how junky they were. There was a reason to every single thing in there.


I’m realizing that it’s not specifically farming that I’m interested in but control, attempts to control our worlds and those in it, and the anxiety that accompanies this desire and inevitable failure. Farming is a tool or language available to me to discuss these concepts because of my background and affection for farming culture.

End Rachel. Readers, any thoughts?


5 Comments to “Tomato skins, nostalgia and the Holocaust”

  1. My mother canned tomatoes, and pickles, beans, beets, pears, peaches, jellies, jams, all sorts of things. Our dining room had a set of shelves build into the wall that others might have used to display their crystal. It was filled with ball jars filled with all the different things my mother canned. After Mom died, Dad just left them there. Clearing them out after Dad died was one of the saddest things I have ever done.

  2. Thank you for sharing that John. It’s a beautiful and sad image.
    I’m interested in the experiences others have with canning, especially as the tradition and practicality of it falls away. As I’ve been talking with people about this project it has been notable that nearly everyone has a memory of a mother or grandmother who had shelves of ball jars. A few have memories of canning with an older family member. I’ve thought about collecting these recollections as part of this project. And you’re right, the jars themselves do become precious objects to both the one who canned them and the people in their lives. They are hard to part with. They become attractive encasements of a person’s care and labor. There’s something special about that. I wonder if the act of making them as art (and the shear number of them) removes that perception of infused care and labor.

    John, out of curiosity did you eat the food or throw it out? Did your mom have a garden that she was harvesting from or was she purchasing the fruits and veg?

  3. I grew up in a small paradise. In 1950, my father was working as a machinist at Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock, but he wanted to live in the country. My maternal grandfather, a pharmacist with a drug store in Savannah, GA, provided the loan that enabled Mom and Dad to buy 72 acres at the head of Patricks’ Creek, a tidal inlet that flows into the Poqouson River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay. Most of the property was wooded, and Mom said that she cried when she, a city girl, had to move out into the depths of what was still a largely rural York County, VA. But Dad was a passionate horticulturist whose hobby was the point on which we lived. Over time he added six pecan trees, two black walnut trees, a grape arbor, asparagus beds, lots of camellias and azaleas, plum, pear, fig and apple trees, raspberry and blackberry beds. His biggest claim to fame was introducing bamboo to Virginia, three varieties brought up from an agricultural research station in Georgia. We had crabs and oysters from the creek and fish from the river and the bay. Every other year, Dad would by a truckload of shells from an oyster house and have them dumped in the creek, knowing that the small oysters that grow on the shelves of the big ones would be ready for harvest in a year or two. For a while, when the economy was slow and Dad was laid off from the Shipyard, we also raised chickens, leaving me with vivid memories of the original meaning of the metaphor “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.” And, yes, we had a big garden, several of them, altogether about the size of a football field. There I spent many an hour planting, weeding and picking. Corn and green peas were for freezing; tomatoes, green beans, okra and beets for canning, cantaloupes and melons to eat on the spot. There were jams and jellies and pickles. Mom’s bread-and-butter pickles, made from small, finely sliced cucumbers and her Jerusalem artichoke pickles were two particular favorites. Dad worked forty years in the shipyard. Mom, while qualified as a registered nurse, stayed home and took care of my brother and me. We were never rich, but we ate like kings.

    The food that was left in the jars when Dad died? It got taken to my brother’s house next door and has long since been consumed by my brother’s kids and grandkids. My brother still plants a big garden, though not as big as the one we grew up with. His wife cans a bit, though not on the scale Mom did. My wife and I live in Japan in a small apartment near the center of Yokohama, a city of nearly four million people. Sometimes, when fruit gets cheap make homemade apple butter and tangerine or citron marmalade.

  4. We love the story of the old woman who cans everything and then sits with them quietly. But yes, as physical art the scientific discovery idea sounds great.

  5. John M, I choked with jealousy upon reading of your bucolic upbringing. I think it was the oysters that stung the most. How wonderful that your mother’s canned food was consumed and that you continue making and preserving food years later and half a world away. Mmmm… apple butter.

    John D, The story of the old lady sitting with the jars is Carl’s favorite as well, and mine too in many ways. In talking with people about these ideas it’s been interesting to note that this narrative has been polarizing. A few more than half of readers don’t care for it at all and don’t understand it, which surprises me (but then it would I guess). They assume it’s a story about a murder and I can’t seem to get them beyond that idea even though the husband’s death is merely implied as part of the canning process. I’m thinking there’s a cultural judgement that we *have to* pay attention to murders and deaths and that it might be immoral and wrong to focus on a larger, more lyrical, narrative thread?

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