After last year’s dismal tomato harvest, I went all out this year to ensure that we would have lots of tomatoes and I’m so pleased to find my efforts paying off now. I started plants from seed indoors late last winter, growing them up under lights in our basement. In April, I moved them outside, snugged up next to the house under an eave to harden off. By the time I planted them into the garden under hoop houses in mid-May, they were robust, thick-stemmed beauties. My son discovered our first ripe tomato on July 9th–a full month earlier than we’ve had ripe tomatoes here in previous years. And now?
August 18th tomato harvest…more to come.
That’s about 30 pounds I picked Tuesday morning. The yellow ones are my favorite slicing tomato, Persimmon, which I’ve grown for nine years. They will be part of my entry into Michael Ruhlman’s BLT From Scratch Challenge, but they’re so good I am perfectly happy with plain tomato sandwiches for lunch most days. The small round ones are Stupice, an early variety that I haven’t grow for a while because they don’t have tremendous flavor. I found though, that they’re great for drying and roasting, both techniques that intensify flavor. The elongated tomatoes are San Marzano, the classic Neopolitan plum tomato, a meaty, nearly seedless variety, with a fantastically pure tomato flavor, sweet yet astringent. Summer on the tongue. Those will go into sauce I’ll be making in small batches in my slow cooker, following my friend Melisa’s lead, and on top of a margherita pizza or two. This is my first year growing them and I’m amazed with their productivity, their vines covered with these heavy gems.
My obsession with growing tomatoes is thanks to the special relationship and role they’ve played in my development as a lover of real food. As a girl, I watched my parents grow seedlings in our suburban greenhouse, which I helped them market at the garden club sale every spring. Later in the summer, my brother and I would pull a wagon full of tomatoes and cucumbers around the neighborhood, knocking on doors offering them for sale for ten cents a piece. What we didn’t sell, my mom turned into sauce, which would bubble and sputter on the stove for days before she canned enough jars to provide us with spaghetti sauce for a year. I can remember waking up many a morning during tomato season to the appetite-stimulating aroma of tomatoes, garlic, and onions that had been simmering away all night on the stove and making myself a slice of bread with tomato sauce for breakfast.
At the same time, sliced tomatoes made a daily appearance on the dinner table, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper. This was long before I’d ever heard of a caprese salad and I was then and am now perfectly content to eat fresh tomatoes this way. They were one of the few vegetables I really liked growing up and one winter, when I was about seven or eight years old, I spied some “fresh” tomatoes at the grocery store and asked my mom to buy some. I thought she would be pleased that I was asking her to buy a vegetable, but she said no, explaining that the only fresh tomatoes worth eating are the ones we grew ourselves or bought at a farm stand, that tomatoes from the grocery store taste like “soggy pink cardboard” because they are bred to withstand being trucked long distances, not for flavor. That was an important early lesson in real food, which gave me an appreciation for how fortunate I was to have a family that knew how to grow and find things like good tomatoes. I also learned how deceiving looks can be in the grocery store and was inspired to learn more about the differences between foods bred and grown for flavor and food grown for other reasons.
When I was in my 20s, my father began canning tomato juice, and I spent many hours helping run tomatoes through his hand-cranked juicer. The mindless repetitive nature of the work made for the perfect backdrop to lengthy conversations on all manner of topics. For me, juicing tomatoes with my dad as a college student was a time of reconnecting with the man I’d lost touch with as a teen.
With so many fond memories associated with this jewel of the home garden, it perhaps should come as no surprise that later in life, a flat of tomato seedlings would bring me back from the brink during a bout of severe depression and help me resurrect my true self, that had been buried underneath years of unbearable sadness.
Today, growing and canning tomatoes still gives me an excuse to call my mom and dad with questions and reminds me of spending cold spring mornings in the warmth of our tomato-scented greenhouse and hot summer afternoons harvesting tomatoes with my brother. Tomatoes have given me so much over the years, I am grateful for this wonderful plant, with its unmistakable scent that sticks to my fingers whenever I prune or harvest, and its marvelously versatile, delicious fruit. So, I hope you’ll forgive me for bragging about my tomato harvest and understand that for me, that overflowing basket represents far more than a few jars of sauce.
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