A Long-Simmering Family Tradition

MaryLynn Haase cooks a big batch of tomato sauce in her Arlington kitchen.
MaryLynn Haase cooks a big batch of tomato sauce in her Arlington kitchen. (By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Some people store bicycles in their basements. Or suitcases, summer furniture, children's books long after the children have gone. MaryLynn and Greg Haase store homemade tomato sauce in their Arlington basement -- the 100 to 120 quart glass jars she fills every year.

From mid-August through mid-October, Haase transforms 50 to 75 pounds of tomatoes into sauce every weekend, and then cans them, using sterilized glass jars. Making each batch takes an entire day. And then there's the cleanup. "You can't believe what a mess it makes," she says. "I do it to keep my heritage alive." (And it probably helps that her husband loves the sauce.)

Haase, 48, grew up in an Italian American family in Washington, Pa., 28 miles south of Pittsburgh. Her grandmother did the cooking, and her grandfather, a barber, filled the back yard with basil and tomatoes and cucumbers. Nightly dinners included her parents, Leslie and Carmel Valitutti; her grandparents, Angelo and Maria Grazia Russo; her sister, Janice; and her Uncle Joe and Aunt Phyllis as well as the friends and other extended family who often joined them. Sunday meals always included a stewed meat with tomato sauce.

Haase enjoys emulating that tradition, welcoming family (in addition to her husband are daughter Leslie, 15, and son Alex, 17) and friends to her table. "If you can make people comfortable in your house and you feed them, it's nourishment for the soul," she says.

The expansive house on a leafy cul-de-sac where the Haase family lives is a continent -- and a century -- away from her southern Italian roots. And she worries that the culture she used to take for granted could fade away.

The family tomato sauce is part of that culture. So, using the coldpack canning method her grandmother taught her 23 years ago, Haase makes the sauce she remembers from her childhood. Over and over again.

It's a dense, rich sauce whose ingredients vary -- sometimes red peppers, garlic, onions, basil, parsley and shiraz; other times onions, mixed peppers, oregano, cayenne pepper, sugar and Chianti. But even when she sticks with the same recipe, the flavor changes with whatever tomatoes are in season: in the early days, standards such as Better Boy and beefsteak; later on, heirlooms and Brandywines, even cherry tomatoes and San Marzanos, many chefs' favorite.

Haase knows these details because she keeps track of each batch, noting the specific recipe and date (as in, "8/5/2001, Sauce number 1") on the jar lid and on the pages of written instructions she keeps in a fading, much-used green folder. The one she uses most these days (Sauce #1, 2002) calls for Roma tomatoes, garlic, onions, celery, carrots, a red pepper, a little light brown sugar, salt and pepper, Italian seasoning, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, parsley and basil.

Haase began putting up tomato sauce in earnest only about 15 years ago, a few years after her grandfather died. "I realized things were changing, that I was the next generation, and that I had to step up to the plate," she says.

Initially, she produced 15 to 20 quart jars of sauce each season. But while those bright-red sauce-filled jars made perfect Christmas gifts, she realized she needed to make more for her family and for gifts at other times of the year.

As her output expanded, the process began taking over her weekends -- even with her husband's help in carrying, sorting and cleaning because the tomatoes had to be skinned before cooking.

After awhile, Haase discovered with relief that a machine could do that. And these days, she's graduated from a basic model to a more sophisticated Italian one that can skin, seed and squeeze about 30 pounds of tomatoes in about half an hour. "Once I got the machine, I was Superman," she says. "It saves at least two hours for each batch."

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