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May 20, 2024

Missing Tomatoes

By Cheryl Haimann

Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes,
What'd life be without home grown tomatoes?
There's only two things that money can't buy,
And that's true love and home grown tomatoes.

"Home Grown Tomatoes" by Guy Clark

I'll admit right up front that I am not a big tomato fan. Despite being reared by good southern farm folk who never ate a summer meal until they had sliced up a 'mater, I never truly acquired the taste. As an adult, I learned to tolerate tomatoes chopped up on tacos and salads, or sliced on a burger. I even learned to relish a plate of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with olive oil and fresh basil, as long as you didn't expect me to eat all of the tomatoes.

Once I developed a tolerance for them, though, I began to appreciate the tangy and colorful note they contribute to a summer meal. But sit down and eat a chunk of tomato by itself, with all of the goopy, seedy stuff still on it? Let's not get carried away.

The detente between woman and tomato was going well until a few summers ago. It started with a tomato wedge in a salad that collapsed into a mush at the slightest touch. Then there were the slices on a sandwich that were so unripe that the centers were as gray and unchewable as cardboard. Diced tomatoes were more salmon-pink rather than zesty red. "Communist tomatoes," my husband called them. "Reduced to the most basic level for the edification of the masses."

I expect substandard specimens in winter, but this was in June and July, prime tomato growing season.. It was August before I bit into a sandwich and caught a whiff of vine ripened goodness. August! I had frittered away an entire summer on colorless, flavorless tomatoes that were picked green in Mexico and gassed into false ripeness on their way north.

"It's just not right to be startled because a tomato tastes like a tomato," I told my husband.

"Maybe we should grow our own tomatoes next year," he replied. Easy for him to say. Like my parents and their parents before them, he came from a background where gardening was not a relaxing hobby, but a means of putting food on the table for hungry children. It's second nature to him.

I, however, am not a gardener. I love looking at other people's gardens, but that Siren does not sing to me. My meager flower garden is populated by hand-me-down perennials--tulips that came with the house, day lilies from a friend, iris from my mother, phlox from aunt (who got them from her mother before I was born.) Two small rose bushes are the only purchased plants we own, and we only own them because we had a space that was too small for more day lilies. One ambitious year, I also had lavender, basil and thyme. Like the flowers, they thrived on my inattention.

I tried having a vegetable garden one year. It seems so wholesome, going out to the garden with a salad bowl and filling it with fresh carrots and radishes and lettuce and crookneck squash. Sadly, it turns out that I do not feel at one with Gaia just because I am discovering prehistoric worms in the soil. No, gardening just makes me feel grimy, and it leaves earth-toned stains on all of my not-earth-toned clothes. My radishes grew into gnarled mutant knobs. The squash withered on the vine. The lettuce... I like to think of the lettuce as my garden's science fair project. Who knew that unpicked lettuce would grow into a four foot tall leafy stalk strong enough to support a squirrel?

I liked the part of gardening that used organic substances, such as beer, to kill plant-chomping nasties, especially since there was usually some beer left over for the gardener. My husband, though, has no patience for that organic stuff. A production gardener, he feels smelly substances in green packages (always green, so you know they are healthy) with ingredient lists that read like a chemistry teacher's classroom inventory are a vital part of the food production arsenal. "Isn't that stuff dangerous for animals?" I ask.

"The animals shouldn't be eating our garden," he replies.

"I'd better not come out here tomorrow and find a dead bunny."

"Then you'd better hope a cat carries off the rabbit before you see it."

Despite his agreement in principle with my pursuit of a tasty tomato, he still had reservations. "Tomatoes are viney," he said. "They spread out a lot."

"Then maybe you shouldn't put so much fertilizer on them," I muttered.

It was my dad who bridged the impasse. By this time, he was The Bionic Senior Citizen Man, with several enhanced or rebuilt body parts, including two knees and several arteries, and a smidge of arthritis.

"You need patio tomatoes," he said.

It turns out there are tomato plants bred to be small and compact enough to grow in pots. Dad liked them because he didn't have to bend over very far to pick them. The plant was bushy instead of viney, so it didn't require much upkeep.

We took his advice, and bought one plant that year. I was amazed to learn that it met my number one requirement for gardening, surviving on neglect. Since soil in pots dries out faster, I watered it occasionally. Even that was a painless task requiring a pitcher or two of water, rather than a long yard soaking.

The tomatoes were on the small side, but that was fine for our two-person household. Best of all, they kept coming at a regular clip. Every few days, another one would be ripe. This went on for weeks and weeks.

The experiment had been a success, but it was never repeated. We always seemed to forget about wanting tomatoes until tomato season was well underway and we were at a restaurant, griping about the salmon-pink communist cardboard tomatoes.

Dad died a couple of years ago, in the spring, and I like doing something life-affirming around that time as a way of remembering him. Last year, I went to the Animal Rescue League and came home with a kitten. This year, I think I will be skulking around the garden centers looking for the perfect little tomato plant.

Or maybe two. Perhaps some scallions. And the basil could go right over there...
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-03-06
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