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VOL. 43 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 13, 2019

Of summer’s end, heat and the lackadaisical chef

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The pawpaws ripen in the heat, fall to the ground and, in short order, sprint from soft to rot. This time of year they demand attention.

The passion fruit orbs are more patient. They start big and fill slowly. You have to check their weight in the palm of your hand and wait for them to begin to shrivel or risk hollow disappointment.

The late tomatoes make their final push while many varieties are already played out. The delicious variety of heirlooms carries a series of staggered timetables for when they peak, some early, some late. Heirlooms laugh at the clockwork synchronicity of their genetically altered commercial cousins, the way we laugh at bad plastic surgery.

This is the end of summer. For some it’s a lamentation for the curbing of a season and the loss of the bounty of dirt. For others, it’s time to push the heat aside and welcome fall’s color and decay, to use the creeping fade of darkness to seize the comfort of home.

This summer, though, fingers of heat keep clawing at the calendar. It’s mid-September and still oppressive. While this month is no stranger to lingering heat in Tennessee, this month of this year seems a bit...much.

It is off-putting and slowly rattles our circadian rhythms, not in a jarring way, like a steak thrown on a hot grill, but in the slow bake of a 12-hour sous vide water bath. We are cooked.

This year I decided to make my grandmother’s “chili sauce,” a late summer tradition that’s been lost since my mother stopped years ago. Growing up, there was never not a jar of this tangy sauce on the dinner table.

While shopping for the ingredients, I stopped to talk about the recipe with Troy Smiley whose Smiley Farms booth anchors the northwest end of the shed at the Nashville Farmers Market.

He nods, his deep blue eyes searching back in time, and then starts to talk about how every family had their late-summer recipe for relishes and condiments, before the abomination of ketchup. I choose my onions, bell peppers and 30 large tomatoes and show my receipt to Troy. He laughs because he knows that I know he keeps tabs.

No, Troy doesn’t keep running tabs, at least not for me, but he likes to know how much folks spend with him. Faces and tabs. He’s funny that way and I love him for it.

I love him for his knowledge of farming and his business sense. I love that he still does farm-style cold-weather hog butchering up on the Ridgetop ridge. I also love his cunning. As a leader among farmers, he knows everyone watches what he does so they might replicate his success. That’s why he makes up fake names for some of his varietals, so copycats don’t steal his business.

Troy tells me to go make my chili sauce, and I do, armed with my grandmother’s recipe that’s been twice transcribed by my mother, first for herself, then for my sister. Thanks to modern technology, my sister simply takes a picture of it with her iPhone and texts it to me.

Sadly, this isn’t some time-stained “Dirty Pages” recipe card, and halfway into prepping I find myself longing for my grandmother’s original print.

Colorful jars of grandmother’s chili sauce with vinegar, sugar and spices.

-- Photograph Provided

Chili sauce, in this iteration, should not be confused with chili or southwestern salsa. It is a tomato-based relish, cooked to a deep, dark red with onions and bell peppers, the reckless bounty of summer. It’s bright and sweet thanks to plenty of vinegar and sugar, but its signature flavor comes from aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and celery seed.

Experienced cooks work quickly but don’t rush. This day, I was lazy and I rushed and I didn’t properly study the recipe. I didn’t stop to think about the ingredients and the steps. Mom’s phone instructions about doing it by feel and eye and taste weren’t particularly helpful, but the failure was my own. I’m usually pretty good about sussing out any issues in recipes.

First, the laziness. I didn’t feel like fine chopping all of those peppers and onions, so I coarsely rendered them into chunks. My laziness was enabled by my wife who kindly blanched and slipped off all the tomato peels in advance.

This is mostly a “dump everything in a large stock pot and simmer for hours” kind of recipe so I wasn’t really thinking about anything except how much I like the Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal collaboration that was playing on Alexa. That’s when it hit me.

“Holy shit, this is a lot of vinegar,” I say to myself once I have poured it all in. Then I look at the sugar. “Six cups? Really?” But with that much vinegar now it will need about that much to maybe balance it out. Sweet mother of invention, what kind of liquid mess is this?

I get it to a simmer, which is no easy task on the glass-top stove I hate. Within an hour the color is deepening and at least the aroma I remember is dancing with visions of Nana’s small apartment kitchen. If the smell could take me back, there was hope.

After four hours it was really starting to thicken, but the chunks were still big and I made the decision to get out the immersion blender and convert the batch from relish to liquid. They call it a sauce, now it’s a sauce. I cooked another half an hour and decided it was time to can it.

By the spoonful I wouldn’t say it was bad, just very vinegar forward and way too sweet. Also, the few hot peppers I put in were completely lost. No kick at all. Now I have a dozen jars and a mile-long disclaimer for every person I give one to.

My mother, who got one over Labor Day, said it was too runny. She was right of course, but about that eight freaking cups of vinegar? Something was lost in transcription.

I went online and was quite surprised to find that this version, also called chili sauce by others, was quite common in parts of upstate New York and southern Indiana. The proportions of tomatoes, peppers and onions were basically the same and the spice profile was pretty spot on but similar recipes called for much less vinegar and sugar.

The next time, I am going to properly chop to a relish consistency, and make it perfectly spoonable for pot roast and sausage biscuits. I am going to cut the vinegar and sugar and dial up the heat with more chili peppers. I am going to make smaller batches and I am going to get it right.

Of course, I place all the infernal blame on this lingering wave of climatic shift. I’m off my game and I should have listened to the pawpaws and paid more attention to the recipe. The cues of the maypop would have told me to take my time and prep things the right way. The tomatoes, thankfully, did their own thing their own way.

A good tomato gets everything right, which is why we can them and miss them so much until full heat of summer returns.

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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