This spring I purchased a tomato plant that I have never heard of before. The name of this plant stopped me in my tracks. Could it be—a tomato variety that perhaps my grandfather and his brothers actually processed at Gangi Brothers tomato packing plant?! How is it that a tomato species was actually given the name, “Santa Clara Canner?” I found this little treasure at the Santa Clara County Master Gardener’s plant sale at Kelley Park in San Jose. In the past three years, this is where I have purchased most of my tomato plants. I could not wait to see what this little seedling would produce in the months to come.
On the Master Gardener’s website, their description of the Santa Clara Canner is described as such, “…delicious, large fruit, very prolific, juicy yet solid. Big robust healthy plant, historically used in California canning industry. Categorized as a Classic tomato.”
When I was a young girl, I remember my grandfather bringing home wooden lugs of perfectly round red tomatoes. They were very large and could barely fit into my small hands. I was always so impressed with them. I loved the sweet smell and taste. My favorite way to eat them then, as it is now, is freshly sliced with a sprinkling of salt. The humble tomato symbolized something very important to my family—it meant tradition, heritage, culture, and a way of life. When I now pick an amazing tomato in my garden and gaze upon its beauty, it still symbolized the same virtues as it did for my grandparents.
Lucille and Valentino Gangi, my maternal grandparents. With them is myself and my brother Tim.
My grandfather was very proud of his tomato packing plant. It was his life–it was what he knew. He was the tomato purchaser. He spent many days of the year, especially during the summer, on the road to the Salinas and Central Valleys, where he purchased tomatoes from the farmers. One of the many perks of his job was all the free produce that the farmers would give him. He always stopped by to see my mother after a road trip. He would open up the trunk of his car and it would be a veritable market on wheels. He would give us such ripe and delicious produce. I remember cantaloupes so big and so sweet. And I also remember peaches and apricots. But he always had tomatoes, which he would leave in abundance.
During the summer canning season the cannery operated 24/7. The sweet yet pungent smell of cooked tomatoes would waft throughout the valley. On warm summer nights when there was a breeze, I could smell the tomatoes as my home, which was a couple miles away from the cannery. My father worked at the cannery too. He often had to work throughout the night. Everyone worked long and odd hours until the season was over. October would be the time to rest.
After a little research, I have learned that the Santa Clara Canner tomato originating in Italy, which became very popular in the California canning industry because of it’s uniformity in size (8-10 oz.), it’s very rich and complex flavor, and its diversity for various canning products. The fruit is very juicy yet full of solid meat, making it fine for canning but just as good for eating off the vine. The plant produces a great amount of red-orange fruit, which matures in 80 days.
Well I finally have a Santa Clara Canner tomato plant full of ripe red fruit—and oh how beautiful they are! They totally remind me of the big red orbs that my grandfather would bring to my home when I was a girl. They are the sweet tomatoes of my memories! Small things make me happy!
The tomato tastes sweet, bursts with tomato goodness, has just the right amount of acid, has a delicate finish, is meaty yet juicy, and the skin is of medium thickness with no bitterness. Absolutely delicious!
I have been in tomato overload at my home this month. Just like our family cannery of my youth, it seems as if I have been picking tomatoes 24/7—and canning the following days. So far I have made tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, and marinara—and more to come. I am grateful to have my happy tomato memories of my grandparents—they were such great people!
To order seeds of Santa Clara Canner tomato, or other tomatoes, these websites are a great source.
Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County
Gary Ibsen’s TomatoFest