The Steamy Annual Ritual of Homemade Pummarola

by LindaAnn LoSchiavo

Tomatoes, like some families, have a complicated history.  Solanum lycopersicum was a small-time berry until bred to be the fleshier pomodoro perino, admired for its stubborn luster yet feared because of its fatal kinship to deadly nightshades.  Southern Italian farmers propagated its cousin, the San Marzano, which shed its bad rap, earning its rightful place among respectable edibles.
The poor don’t shed their humble origins as easily.  But, like oil and vinegar, they learn to cooperate, as we did, coming together every September in a Bensonhurst basement, chef aprons slung around our necks, to make pummarola — the Napoletana name for tomato puré, a staple essential for suppers and celebrations.  The ninth month, rich in ripeness and rot, was devoted to this ritual.
Each year, three families assumed a pose along the rough assembly line, replayed deft movements memorized like favorite folk dances. Pot lids clanged like tambourines, while bottle capping played percussion.
Ten fingers skipping over rhythmic scales, as bushels of plump San Marzanos turned to liquid, we’d pause to smear paste on reddened cheeks of bread, quick guilty bites demanded by the empty bowl of hunger that we indulged.
In late October, when geranium leaves rolled up their stiff scrolls, homemade pummarola would adorn the pizza that fueled us as we reworked worn sheets into Hallowe’en costumes.  My mother’s handiwork transformed me into one Christian martyr after another.  If the pizza spattered the material, that was fine because bloodstains were part of the allure.  Marinara sauce was a hat tip to sainthood’s ghastly stature of suffering for the cause — or perhaps devoutly miserable and relieved to jettison kith and kin, flirting with eternal peace.
There was never any serenity in that steamy cellar, vats bubbling over, as each individual leaned into the hard day’s edge, filling glass bottles with hot red gold.
We never knew the store-bought shortcakes wealthier families took for granted.  We lacked the gift for idleness, the talent for gaily spending.  Our traditional meals began with make-do, economizing, and teamwork.  No one claimed credit for the basil perfumed pummarola, an annual act of sweaty but congenial collaboration — one of the few times everyone got along.
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Note: pomodoro perino means plum tomato

Native New Yorker LindaAnn LoSchiavo, a Pushcart Prize, Rhysling Award, Best of the Net, and Dwarf Stars nominee, is a member of SFPA, The British Fantasy Society, and The Dramatists Guild. Elgin Award winner “A Route Obscure and Lonely,” “Concupiscent Consumption,” “Women Who Were Warned,” Firecracker Award and IPPY Award nominee “Messengers of the Macabre” [co-written with David Davies], and “Apprenticed to the Night” [Beacon Books, 2023] are her latest poetry titles.

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