Politics and Canned Tomatoes
By: Nancy Werking Poling
During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, twenty pints of tomato sauce, and twelve pints of catsup—Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen, with its five feet of counter space, Youngstown metal sink, and antediluvian four-burner electric stove, I fervently followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a 15-inch black-and-white TV. I wanted answers too.
Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. Operating all at once, the four stove-burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners; on another, a large teakettle maintained a low whistle. On the front left burner, the one nearest the sink, a pan of water boiled.
As Tom Daschle posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy peeling by briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office signing his now-besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen, the heat would have convinced him he was already in hell.
While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the teakettle. From a saucepan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed.
After placing seven filled jars in the wire racks of both canners, I gently lowered the heavy racks into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest a moment while the stove and canners carried out their responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Senator Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.
The simple life. That was the path my husband and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, peas, green beans, and other vegetables; enough filled glass jars on basement shelves and cardboard boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until Armageddon or the next harvest, whichever came first. Quite an accomplishment for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to picking green beans for his mother to cook for dinner or reluctantly weeding alongside his father.
Twenty holes filled with water, twenty tomato plants, their stems wrapped in strips of paper grocery bags to protect them from boring insects. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we could bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place the tomato plants in the holes, pack the muddy soil around them.
“Now, I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating performance. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man, laboring in a garden not unlike ours. Dirt caked our hands, got underneath our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same way? Surely those of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured.
Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required much more than planting and hoeing. We relied on neighbors for how-to advice. We read Rodale publications, subscribed to organic gardening magazines, some of which suggested that gardeners keep records of what they planted and when. Yes, the simple life was far more complicated than we’d anticipated.
Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.
My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, stuffing clean jars, filling the jars to the top with boiling water, putting on lids, lowering them into the water bath.
Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s needed to do to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. Everything on my little TV set supported that decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.
Still, I was shocked when, on a July day, while I was adding spices to a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I walked away from the pan to stand next to the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.
As jars on my kitchen counter cooled, the lids would ping one-by-one, evidence that the jars were sealed. When they were cool, I carried them, two at a time, down the basement steps, back into a small, dark room lined with shelves. Symbols of my labor, they stood at attention, row upon row of them.
When I dropped in bed each night, exhausted, in those brief moments before I fell asleep I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike: Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover; Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean, no doubt fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.
Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate Hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined background music changing tempo, becoming more somber as the drama built. Yet I, like many other Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.
There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of our goal of self-reliance, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as we had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, we were a part of this country for better or for worse. As much as we were trying to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, we were tied to its fate.
Nancy Werking Poling now lives in western North Carolina. She is author of HAD EVE COME FIRST AND JONAH BEEN A WOMAN and a novel, OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL.