inscriptions & unearthings

The Table

It is a delightful rainy day, and I sit at my kitchen table writing this post… at a table rich with history, and my own story.


Tables have lost much of their importance in our culture. We come; we go – often heading in a million different directions, but rarely taking the time to sit around a table together. For most of human history, though, sharing a meal and gathering around a table was one of the most basic of human interactions.


This kitchen table has been in my family for many years. Of no particular style, this was no fancy dining room table, but was a solid maple table built for working class people.
Last year I had retrieved the table from the hayloft of my parent’s barn after they passed away. Originally it had belonged to my grand parents, and they had used it for many years, before my mother inherited it. She used it for many more years as well, patching it back together over and over, before finally relegating it to the hayloft, and the harsh elements of upstate New York.


When I discovered it in a state of ruin among the piles of discarded things there, I was filled with bittersweet emotions to once again see this bearer of so many memories. The fact that it had survived in those conditions is nothing short of a miracle. I knew at that moment that it would travel across the country with me when I returned home.


Once home, the table was put away for a while. Then I finally found someone to repair and refinish it, and they began the long laborious process of restoring it. (I am thankful to have photos of it throughout this process, which are found here.)


My grandparents were the original owners, and had probably gotten it in the 1950’s; one of the few new pieces of furniture they ever bought. They were wanderers, and never stayed in one place long enough to collect furniture or other things that many people do. (I attribute my wanderlust to them.) Finally they bought some land in in the early 60’s and were there for the rest of their years together. For me this table was the center of that place.


For various reasons, I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents. When I wasn’t wandering alone through the woods and fields, or working outside with my grandfather, you could almost always find me at that table with my grandmother listening to stories, or sharing meals with both of them. Although I heard most of the stories my grandmother shared, over and over, I never tired of them.


Hers was a remarkable life that left her with an extraordinary (and often complex) character. My grandmother had been born in 1917 on the wrong side of the tracks to a mother who already had many children. She was unwanted and was given to her mother’s cousin to raise. Years later when the Great Depression struck, she was torn from the only true family she ever knew, and returned to her mother. Her mother and adult sisters were neither welcoming nor loving; she was just another mouth to feed in a world of grinding poverty where women without men to care for them fought hard to survive. This awkward, skinny girl with large soulful eyes then became little more than a servant to them, since she had no other way to earn her keep.


As she began to bloom into womanhood, the dangers of the world she lived in began closing in on her. At fourteen, she decided to flee, and the woman who raised her helped her get a bus ticket, and she struck out alone from New York to California with one sandwich and no extra money for the weeklong journey.


On the trip a woman tried to entice her to get off with her, but she remained steadfast to her goal of getting as far away from home as she could. When she finally arrived in Los Angeles, two men took her by the arms when she got off the bus, and started walking away with her. Thankfully with the help of a kind Latino woman she escaped the ill that they had planned for her. (During the Depression there were nearly a quarter of a million children wandering the country looking for food and a better life, and they often fell prey to those taking advantage of their youth and the brutal poverty they faced.)


The woman who rescued her fed her and took her in for a short time; with no agenda other than helping a young girl in need. With this respite and an alias name, she was able to finally get on her own two feet. Eventually my grandmother became a housekeeper for a famous Hollywood director and his family. (I often remember her pointing out old movies that came on TV that he had directed – although now I do not remember his name.) He and his family showed her love and it was there that she grew into a beautiful, sophisticated woman, and there she was able to enter adulthood with her independence.


Still she was often homesick.  Sometimes she wrote to her best friend, who had lived down the road from her family.  She remembered, too, the day that they had been walking together, and she had seen a handsome young teenager with white-blond hair plowing a field.  She had laughingly told her friend that some day she was going to marry him, not realizing that it was her friend’s brother.


Years later when she returned to New York for good, she was asked out on date by her friend’s brother, the one that she had seen in the field, only now he was a man. It wasn’t long before they fell in love, and within just a few months they married. This was just the beginning of a lifelong love they shared for each other.


I never tired of these stories, and many of the others I heard around their table. Apparently she never tired of sharing them either.


Today I share meals and life at this same table.  To me it seems that the memories and the stories from the past have been absorbed into its very wood. Though some of these stories are now a hundred years old, they feel very near to me. So now… I will sit at the table sharing my own stories; stories that hopefully will also be absorbed into the wood for someone in the future.


(A very special thank you to Collin Peterson (CP Woodworking) for his labor of love in restoring this table, and for the “in process” photos.)

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San Marzano

A few days ago, I was perusing through the last few end-of-season vendors still showing up at the farmer’s market near me, and wandered up to a table covered with various types of locally grown tomatoes.

Having grown up, as a child, eating fresh tomatoes year round from my grandfather’s garden or greenhouse, and, as an adult, growing my own, you will almost never see me buy the tasteless tomatoes usually found at the grocery store. A fresh tomato is quite another thing.

Unusual tomatoes have always held a fascination for me, especially heirloom varieties, and over the years I have grown many different, mostly unknown types, which are so delicious that they seem quite unrelated to their pale cardboard store-variety cousins.

Among all the various types of tomatoes at this particular table was one last basket of San Marzano tomatoes. Though I had never heard of them, their unusual long, slightly pepper-like shape caught my attention. (This is truly a confession of my ignorance of sauce tomatoes, which I had never grown.) Even though I had never made sauce from fresh tomatoes before (only from home-grown canned ones), I decided that I could not pass these up.

161016blog-tomatoes_photo1As I was checking out, the owner asked if I would like some last additional blemished ones that he had, at no charge, which I was grateful to have to add to my little basket. He also asked if I had a good recipe and offered me one of his, for which I was also appreciative, and away I went toward a new culinary adventure.

Of course, being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, the first thing I did when I got home was to read up about San Marzano tomatoes. I was excited to discover that these tomatoes were considered to be one of the best sauce tomatoes in the world. Originally believed to be from the area near Naples, Italy, and grown in the volcanic soil near Mt. Vesuvius[1], they are renowned around the world.

That led to more reading about the familiar fruit, we call the tomato.[2] [3] I already knew that, though considered iconically Italian, originally the tomato (tomatl in the native language) was from central and south America, and had been brought back to Europe by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. I also knew that many people in North America and Europe during that time believed that they were poisonous, because of their relationship and similar look to other members of the poisonous nightshade family. I was not aware, though, that the original tomatoes brought to Europe were small yellow fruits, hence the Italian name for them: pomodoro, from pomo d’oro (meaning apple of gold). Nor did I know that they were believed, at that time, to be related to biblical mandrakes, long considered an aphrodisiac. (Perhaps that is why the Italians are considered so romantic.)

161016blog-tomatoes_photo2Returning back from my little cerebral trip into tomato history, it was now time to enter the kitchen. Although I consider myself a good cook, making fresh sauce was entering into sacred territory. Easy to miss because his last name is Irish, my husband is half Italian, and grew up with his mother’s family in an Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia. Eating Italian food for him is nearly a religious experience, and the bar was set pretty high by his mother and grandmother’s cooking.

Armed with the recipe for “Best Tomato Sauce… Ever”[4] that I had brought home from the market, I launched into uncharted waters to make my own version of this San Marzano sauce (because inevitably I can never use a recipe without changing it). The surprise in the original recipe was that the tomatoes were roasted in the oven, making this not only a surprisingly easy way to make sauce (compared to the traditional way of making it), but also gave it a subtle smoky flavor. San Marzano tomatoes also have few seeds, and are very meaty, so there was not a lot of liquid to cook down, making this a fairly quick way to make homemade sauce as well.

The end result was a sauce with a delicious flavor – slightly sweet with low acidity, highlighted by the subtle smokiness from roasting. Truly delicious and definitely a sauce I will make again, when I can get the tomatoes next season. (That is the only downside – waiting until I can get fresh San Marzanos again.) Best of all, the sauce also got a thumbs-up from the Italian in the family.

© 2016 Joni McKeown (ARCHÉOLOGIE)





2-3 lbs.          Fresh San Marzano tomatoes
1                      Shallot – sliced thinly
2                     Whole peeled and sliced fresh locally grown garlic cloves
2 TB               Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin olive oil (from Italy)
to taste          J.Q. Dickinson Heirloom Grinding Salt[6]
to taste          Freshly ground pepper
2-3 TB           Fresh basil – chopped
1 t                   Fresh oregano – chopped
to taste         Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese – grated


Core and cut the ends off of the tomatoes, and then slice into roughly ½” slices. (No need to remove skins.) Mix in a bowl with shallots, garlic, and olive oil. Spread on a cookie sheet and season with salt & pepper. Cook approximately 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally until they have started to brown just a bit. Remove from the oven and let cool. (You can put these in the refrigerator like this, for processing later, or to use immediately.) Put cooled, roasted tomatoes into a food processor and blend until smooth. (The mixture will be pink.) Cook the mixture in a saucepan for about 20-30 minutes over low heat. The sauce will slowly darken to a rich red, smoky color. The cheese can be added to the sauce or sprinkled over the dish.



[1] Wikipedia, San Marzano Tomato,
[2] Wikipedia, Tomato,
[3] Smithsonian Magazine, Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe for More Than 200 Years
[4] Credit for this recipe must be given to Corner Spring Farm, without which I would have never made this delightful sauce.
[5] I listed the specific ingredients that I used. Others can be substituted. Don’t skip on the olive oil or the Locatelli if you can help it though.
[6] J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works,

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The beautiful melancholy of the rain.

Washing away the soil

left on the feet

of the world.

The gray blanket of clouds

wrapping the earth

and its wanderers with life.


The sun made even

sweeter by its presence.



Poem © 2013 Joni McKeown
Photo © 2016 Joni McKeown

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