Made in Eastern Iowa: Chopping, Cooking and Jarring in Montezuma

By  | 

MONTEZUMA (KCRG-TV9) -- The hunger of teenagers led Marilyn D’Aguanno to a discovery. They liked salsa. She liked the process of making it.

Marilyn D'Aguanno, of Montezuma, works on her latest batch of Momma Teresa Salsa, first inspired by trying to feed the hungry teenagers in her house.

“Years ago when my kids were in high school, I thought ‘gardening, canning’ and so for snacks after school for their friends,” said D’Aguanno. “ I would make 300 jars for the summertime and by the end of the summer, gone. I thought the kids would come to the house, they were coming to visit us. No, they were coming for the salsa.”

It's a crisp 49 degrees outside on a fall morning on the western edge of Montezuma. As Marilyn walks into her salsa kitchen, the temperature inside soon hits 90 degrees. This is a cook day for Marilyn and her product, Momma Teresa Salsa.

“I thought ‘why not make some money at this?’ My husband and I came up with the recipe, had it tested, what we liked between us. The taste. Then I set it to the class at the University of Nebraska and got my processing license. The processing license allows me to sell at grocery stores, farmers markets. Got my recipes approved. Mild, medium and hot. Drove around with bags of one of each.”

We first met her at the Downtown Cedar Rapids Farmers Market over the summer. Marilyn had her three salsa flavors for sale but we wanted to actually see the process of making – and selling – salsa. It’s far more complex than most people may think. The ingredients are the easy part. Marilyn said she gets her tomatoes, green peppers and onions from a cousin in Brooklyn. The paperwork, she said, is not as simple.

“You have to get your kitchen inspected by the state of Iowa, you cannot deviate from the recipe,” she said. “If I want to make it more hot, I have to send it to the University of Nebraska.”

Even the cooking and the testing of the salsa is rather rigid.

“I have to take the temperature three times in 20 minutes and it has to be boiling. I have to keep that going and I have to document this on paperwork.”

As she spoons in a small sample, she notes what must be done next.

“I have to take a sample,” said Marilyn. “This sample I’ll let sit and I can let sit for 24 hours and I have to make my pH test. If I don’t pass my test, I cannot sell this. I’ve never had a problem getting my pH test correct with my ingredients. The (Food & Drug Administration) comes every two years to inspect my kitchen and see me doing this to make sure I’m passing regulations.”

Even with the regulations, this is a clear passion project for her. Marilyn still works full-time but believes that, with each pot that can lead to 12 jars of salsa, she is a little closer to doing this full-time.

With someone who spends so much time around the product, we had to ask. What makes the ideal salsa?

“I want people to taste what they’re eating it with, the food they’re putting it on. Condiment, chicken, chips, cheese.”

Learn more by visiting www.mommateresasalsa.com