An older woman pours salt in a large pot while a child helps
Cindi Gallagher shows granddaughter Claire how to salt tomatoes. Credit: Macon Street Books

Canning tomatoes at home, though laborious, is rather simple. But an essential part of the process is sacred to Cindi Hemelt Gallagher – the generous salting of peeled and quartered tomatoes as they simmer on the stove.

This is the moment that reminds Cindi of her late mother, Theresa Adornato Hemelt (1933-2016), a pure product of Italian-American Highlandtown who canned tomatoes nearly every summer of her life, going back to helping her own mother during the Great Depression.

“She always ran the salt box in a circle three times around the rim of the pot,” said Cindi as her family “put up” two large boxes of tomatoes last month at their home in Severna Park. To spirit “Treesey” into the moment, three generations took a turn: Cindi, her daughter Moira Gallagher Ferguson, and Cindi’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Claire Dondero, just a toddler when her great-grandmother died.

“Mom came down here to help us a few years before she died,” said Cindi. “By then, the only part she did was the salt.”

Cindi’s husband Tom Gallagher – a Hyattsville boy with Italian heritage on his mother’s side – did not grow up with the tradition. When he and Cindi began dating back in the Carter Administration, his assignment at family dinners was grating the Parmesan.

“Tom,” his future mother-in-law would say, “I need some cheese.” Having fallen hard for Cindi, the young man complied. Now married for more than 40 years, he could easily can a peck or two by himself.

This year, Tom stood watch over a large, aluminum pot (passed down through the Adornato family) of boiling water, gently slipping in tomatoes with a serving spoon. They emerged less than a minute later, the skin loose for easy peeling. The last time I visited Cindi on canning day, back before the pandemic, her mother’s brother – Ernest Adornato, Jr. – had that job. “Uncle Juidy” died last summer.

After the tomatoes are peeled, cored and quartered (with special attention paid to “bad spots” that need to be removed) they go in a second pot to be cooked. With the salt and heat comes foam. It’s skimmed away and sprigs of fresh basil from the Gallagher yard are added.

“I’m very generous with the basil,” said Cindi, who, like the family cooks before her, is more than generous with the bounty of her kitchen.

Come Christmas, she will give away a quart or two to friends and relatives. This year, two boxes of beefsteak tomatoes – $15 each at Richardson Farms in Middle River – yielded 21 quarts.

Nothing this side of Sicily makes for glorious Sunday supper pasta sauce like freshly canned tomatoes. Anyone with an Italian grandmother (mine, Frances Prato Alvarez, was the younger sister of Cindi’s nonna, Mary Adornato) can immediately parse the good from the great.

Ragu? Paisan, please.

The first job is a cold water bath for the tomatoes, always “seconds,” too ugly or bruised to be a star at your favorite restaurant. Cindi does it in her kitchen sink.

After the canning, BLTs for everyone Credit: Andrea Gutierrez

Eleanor Cucco Stein, at 89 a lifelong resident of Little Italy, remembers her mother Antonetta washing tomatoes in the backyard with a garden hose and a big metal tub when they lived at 209 South Exeter Street. When Eleanor was 14, her father – a tailor and clarinet player named Vince – moved the family around the corner to a wide, three story rowhouse where the previous owner kept chickens in the middle room.

“We got the tomatoes from a man on the street with a truck named Leo up around Exeter and Pratt Street,” said Eleanor. “We’d buy them by the bushel. My mother had a hand grinder on the edge of the table. She’d grind ’em up and cook the pulp on the stove.”

When they were done, “we had a hundred jars or more. All week the house smelled like tomatoes.”

When the Cuccos moved to the new house, the canning stopped. “Me and my sisters were all in high school by then,” said Eleanor. “We all got jobs. Mom, too.”

Out of dozens of descendents of the Prato sisters who once lived within three blocks of each other in what was then “the Hill” and is now Greektown, Cindi is likely the only one still canning tomatoes.

My parents did it on Macon Street while my grandmother was alive, assisting at first and then taking charge in Grandmom’s later years. As a little kid – too young to help but old enough to get in the way – I’d be given a hunk crusty bread from Maranto Bakery to dip into a bowl of red gold.

“Do you know how many times we had spaghetti growing up?” said my 87-year-old uncle, Victor Alvarez of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. “Two and three times a week and we always wanted more. That’s how many jars they had to put up. My father built cabinets in the back of the basement just for my mother’s tomatoes.”

Grandmom died in 1976 and for a while my folks did the job at their suburban home, getting bushels for free at the end of the growing season from a neighbor’s brother who had a small farm near Annapolis. My brother Danny, who continues many Alvarez culinary traditions,  pitched in for many years. 

Our father has been dead for two years now, the Ball jars dusty on a basement shelf. In a nearby drawer is the wide-mouthed aluminum funnel that sits perfectly atop those jars. And just like Cindi pouring the salt, when Pop made his mama’s sauce, she was with us.

The Aztecs called the red and yellow yield of wild vines that grew in the Andes xitomatl, or “plump fruit with a navel.”

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean Nobel Laureate, wrote, “…at the midpoint of summer, the tomato, star of earth, recurrent and fertile star, displays …its remarkable amplitude and abundance…no pit, no husk, no leaves or thorns…”

Less poetically, the Supreme Court designated the tomato a vegetable in 1893 in a case involving customs and tariffs. But the only words that matter when the salsa di pomodoro hits the table are “Mmm, mmm good.”

It’s all about spaghetti and ravioli and lasagna and, in some families where customs die hard, even braciole. But also people, be they blood kin or dear friends, who sit with us at table and say “Can someone pass the sauce down this end?”

It’s about a blonde girl not old enough to handle a knife but able to write the year the tomatoes were canned on the lid of the jar and the name of the loved one to whom it will be given, a girl named Claire who stood on a stool to pour salt on a pot of glistening tomatoes.

Who knows who she will be thinking of when her own child is taught the way it’s always been done?

Cindi Hemelt with enough canned tomatoes to last until the New Year Credit: Macon Street Books

Rafael Alvarez and Cindi Gallagher will be canning tomatoes in their grandparents’  old neighborhood near the ruins of the Crown, Cork & Seal factory later this month. He can be reached via

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