I never gave much of a thought as to why we had stewed tomatoes on the dinner table a couple of nights a week. It was just a part of Baltimore. And not only at my family's house on Guilford Avenue. They were regularly served at the Maryland Club. And only a few weeks ago, I enjoyed some of the best at a luncheon preceding the Grand National steeplechase race.
Stewed tomatoes? Basic food, terribly out of style today, but so evocative of the cuisine that has been vanishing from Maryland since the chefs all got their culinary arts degrees. They would sooner go hungry than serve a boiled tomato nowadays.
A new book, Saving Our HarVest: The Story of the Mid-Atlantic Region's Canning and Freezing Industry (CTI Publications, Timonium), delves into tomatoes and Maryland.
I thought this weighty volume (456 pages and about four pounds) would not be a page-turner. Wrong. I put it down at 1:05 the other morning as I picked and chose from story after story about all those canning and packing houses along Boston Street, the strip now regarded as Baltimore's Platinum Coast. There are acres of information on the Eastern Shore and all those canneries we passed on the way to the beaches. These businesses, almost all gone now, had their heyday before World War II.
In many ways, this is a book about a forgotten side of the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, their tributaries and the rail lines (B&O, Pennsy and Jersey Central) that knitted the whole enterprise together.
Perhaps the real story is the labor force, the Eastern European immigrants, the watermen, rural poor, the African-Americans, who made seasonal money from the packinghouses on the shores of bay tributaries and in the sandy fields of the Delmarva region.
Didn't many Baltimoreans gather around the breakfast table to the sound of steam whistles? I seem to remember one that went off at 6:50 a.m. and another at 7. The source of this urban alarm clock was the tomato factory. Some people recall the harbor in Southeast Baltimore running red from tomato canning waste during July and August.
Ed Kee, the author of the book, has not written an expose. This is a well-documented account that explains an unglamorous but very important aspect of the regional economy.
He makes a good point, too. Many people earned extra money working hard during the times when the crops came in. On the other hand, it was tough work that could be dangerous when clattering mechanical equipment malfunctioned.
"It was a labor-intensive industry, and Baltimore was the home of thousands of recently arrived immigrants, many from Poland and other Eastern countries. ... Women nursed their babies while hulling peas, 3-year-old children would work as they could, hulling a few peas, capping strawberries, shelling lima beans. For all the workers, but perhaps especially for immigrants, what counted was not an individual's pay, but the family wage," he writes.
Back to the stewed tomatoes. The author points out that in 1914, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey canned 65 percent of the country's processed tomatoes. Today, California packs 96 percent.
The book devotes considerable space to the old Phillips Packing Co. in Cambridge (not to be confused with the similarly named seafood company) and its far better-known rival, the Campbell operation in Camden, N.J.
This book shows that today's marinas were once working industrial piers, where canners put up corn, tomatoes, string beans, spinach and oysters.
The industry he documents so well lasted a long time. I can still see the label of the Maryland Chief tomato cans sitting in my grandmother's kitchen. And I can still hear the metal clinks at the old American Can Company on Boston Street.