Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to mention the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen—with its five feet of counter space, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I faithfully followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. 

I wanted answers too.

Canners of blue-and-white-speckled enamel occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled. Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy pealing, briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water.

Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office, signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen the heat would have convinced him he was in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a saucepan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country had been screwed.

Both canners held seven jars. After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of a wire rack, I gently lowered the heavy rack into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest a moment while the stove and canners carried out their responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The Simple Life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an undertaking for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to reluctantly weeding alongside his father. We sought advice from other gardeners and read organic gardening magazines, which recommended that we keep records of what we’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than anticipated. 

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was. 

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes in boiling water, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s needed to do to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still I was shocked when on a July day, while I was stirring a batch of catsup. Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. So there was evidence of wrongdoing. To make sure I didn’t miss anything I walked away from the pan to stand beside the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined. 

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden (though he probably didn’t).

Twenty holes filled with water, twenty tomato plants, their stems wrapped in strips cut from paper grocery bags to protect them from boring insects. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place the tomato plants in the holes, pack the muddy soil down around them. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Surely the fingernails of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike. Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover. Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined background music changing tempo, the tune becoming somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of the novel, “While Earth Still Speaks,” and the non-fiction book, “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).”

8 thoughts on “Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

  1. Just read this! I have just learned of the overturn of Roe v. Wade! You and I hold many beliefs in common. I, too, remember canning tomatoes while sweating in a kitchen with no AC!
    As I said in an earlier comment, the Watergate hearings were like a soap opera every day. However, during that time, I felt that Nixon would get what was coming to him and I didn’t have terrible fear like I do now. Maybe I’m older and wiser, but I’m genuinely afraid for our democracy.

    I have doubt that Trump will ever be adequately punished for his blatant crimes. If the DOJ doesn’t set some kind of precedent of punishment in this case, what comes next?

    I have a serious idea of my position on things like this and, until proven wrong, I stick to that position. Gary always said, “You always think you’re right!” Well, of course I do! Why wouldn’t I? Prove me wrong and you can change my mind!

    I don’t think this reasoning will apply to the MAGAs, no matter how much proof they are shown. “As my college roomie loved to say, “My mind is made up! Don’t confuse me with the facts!” (Sarcastic)

    The 1/6 committee is doing a really competent job, but unless there are serious consequences, I fear their work will be in vain. I hate this feeling! I’m old and probably won’t live long enough to be seriously impacted by the consequential decisions being made (or not being made) by today’s “leaders.” My fear, as I am sure yours is, is for my grandchildren.

    If we let this extreme partisanship paralyze action which needs to be taken NOW, where will we be 10-20 years from now?

    I never wanted to be that old lady who went around saying, “I don’t know what the world’s coming to!” …but here I am!

    Some days, I just want to walk out into the woods and let out a primal scream! Dear God, I hope enough Americans see this for what it is and have enough sense to vote out the perpetrators of the lie and the do-nothings in our Congress! However, I’m not holding my breath!

  2. I can relate to yours and Jim’s toils in the garden. I plant a lot of tomatoes and green beans, and Cathy and I can spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, salsa, and stewed tomatoes, as well as green beans. The difference is that now, Cathy and I are watching the January 6th hearings in Congress and hoping that Trump will leave in even worse disgrace than Nixon did,

  3. I had written about how wonderful your canned tomatoes piece was… and it disappeared. I thought it was BRILLIANT. I hope I can keep up better with your gifted prose!!!!mary🌷🌷🌷

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. This was so well-written and so creative in the way you tied canning to the hearings. I had a nursing baby boy and a 17-month old girl at the time and spent hours on the sofa with them while glued to the hearings. Scottie

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  5. Brilliant! It brought back so many memories, and comparisons. I was newly married at the time, and Watergate was the news everywhere. These days seem worse than Watergate. Maybe because I’m a lot older and know a lot more now than I did then. These times feel more dangerous than Watergate. But I also think of our nation’s history. We seem to move from danger and destruction to danger and destruction. As my son reminds me, karma. I can’t help but wonder how we will remember this time years from now, or how changed our world.

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