My Labour Day family tradition

The family home I grew up in was on the northwest corner of Parkhurst and Donegall. For the nearly 40 years my parents lived there, they hosted a sacrosanct, annual, all-hands-on-deck, holiday Monday family tradition. In fact, “tradition” seems too loose and mild a term. “Command performance” is perhaps a more apt way to put it. The entire family, spouses and kids in tow, were expected to report for duty by mid-morning at the latest. Yes, it was the annual making of the chili sauce jamboree. In other words, each year our whole family put the “labour” in Labour Day.

For some reason, we did most of the work outside in our backyard on our deck and picnic table in September’s searing heat and enervating humidity, and amid swarming wasps and the occasional small woodland creature. I’ve never been able to determine why we didn’t set up the chili sauce production line in the air-conditioned comfort of the kitchen, but I’m sure there was a good reason – okay, you got me, I’m really not sure about the good reason part.

There was a carefully evolved and perfected process for making our family chili sauce, but it certainly would not have been obvious to the human eye had a stranger stumbled upon the scene. They would be forgiven for thinking the climactic scene in a horror movie had just been shot. There were stations set up in several backyard locations, all duly staffed for specific tasks including peeling pails of boiled tomatoes, chopping celery, onions and peppers, measuring out the required portions of vinegar and pickling spices, and monitoring the vital signs of family members for heat stroke and exhaustion. 

Eventually, all of the boiled, peeled, chopped and measured ingredients came together in a huge vat about the size of a small hot tub. Then the whole shebang moved into the kitchen for boiling and then the sterilized bottling protocol. You might think that moving into the air-conditioned kitchen would offer some relief. Um, not exactly. Every large pot we could gather was filled with boiling water and jars on the stove for hours on end. Eventually, we’d be forced to take cooling breaks in the 35ºC heat of the backyard, but only one or two of us at a time.

At some point in the early evening, arrayed on our kitchen and dining room tables were dozens of jars of cooling, fresh chili sauce, their metal lids making their welcome popping sounds, one-by-one, as they loudly declared a solid seal had been achieved. Various family members would be passed out on the living room floor, some taking fluids intravenously. Others would be conscious but immobile in chairs waiting for their turn to pass out. 

Here’s the double irony for me. The family recipe for chili sauce is actually entitled “15-minute chili sauce.” Hah! I’m not kidding. The 15-minute part of the recipe name refers only to the length of time the nearly finished mixture must be boiled before moving on to the bottling nightmare – sorry, I mean bottling process. It’s the most misleading misnomer of the millennium – forgive my weakness for alliteration. On the other hand, were the recipe renamed “12-hour chili sauce,” I suspect some might find it a deterrent and just head to the grocery store for a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce.

And the second irony is… I don’t even like chili sauce. Most in our family do, but I don’t. Year after year, my hands and wrists were stained tomato red for several weeks after Labour Day, yet I never once even tasted it, let alone slathered it on roast beef the way it is most often employed around the family dinner table. I guess I’m a purist and prefer my beef unadorned. Nevertheless, no special dispensation for me. I was there every year, elbow-deep.

Don’t misunderstand me. I actually miss those Labour Day chili sauce marathons. They ended when my mother passed away many years ago now. Despite the long and tiring exercise, hanging out and cracking wise with my family for an entire day was no hardship. We laughed pretty well the entire time. Yes, our streaming eyes were not just from chopping onions. If I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t change a thing. Oh, and it’s possible that I may have slightly exaggerated some of the more physically taxing aspects of those Labour Days. To be fair, only a few of us were ever administered fluids via IV. But we always ended the day with enough chili sauce to last for the coming year. And it all happened in Leaside.

Stephen Leacock winner Terry Fallis’s ninth novel, A New Season, is now in bookstores.

About Terry Fallis 84 Articles
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of eight national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart. His most recent, Operation Angus, is now in bookstores.