I believe it is a fine thing to cultivate the virtue of patience, to wait for
something of quality: A well-wrought poem, a handcrafted gift, a decent tomato.
For everything, there is indeed a season, even tomatoes. For some of us, the anticipation starts in early January when the seed catalogues come in the mail. Pictures of luscious, ripe tomatoes: red globes for slicing, thumb-sized ones for snacking, heirlooms and hybrids. Page after page of tomatoes. I admire the pictures of the usual favorites such as Better Boy and Early Girl, but also the heirlooms with the delightful names like Brandywine, Zebra Stripe, Mortgage Lifter, and my favorite: the dense, succulent Cherokee Purple.
But…the ads for fresh fruits and vegetables from far-off countries begin in winter, too. We see fields of ripening vegetables, orchards hanging heavy with fruit, long tables of families enjoying the harvest. Nice music in the background. We forget this produce must be picked for our market when it is not fully ripe, shipped perhaps thousands of miles, handled by pickers, packers, unpackers and distributors of all sorts, before finally arriving at our local supermarkets and displayed in tempting pyramids. The bright color and uniform shape are perfect for marketing if not for taste.
So, in the gray days of late winter, despite the winter tomato jokes, I am lured into buying some of this produce. It tastes terrible, or should I say, it has no taste at all. Sometimes of mushy texture and often hard in the middle, it usually goes into the compost pile, partially eaten. In restaurants, I’ve seen after plates returned to the kitchen with pale slices of inedible tomatoes on them, wasted food.
Some people start the seeds early on a sunny window sill in the winter, transplanting them to the garden in May. They watch for the first tiny yellow flowers, picking off any caterpillars they find, until mid summer when a reddish glow begins to appear on the shoulders of one tomato. Seedlings are also available from a garden store, where one might easily buy more plants than needed, inhaling the spicy scent of the new plants on the drive home. Into the garden or pot or large can they go.
With spring the early local greens and asparagus and strawberries are at the market. They are wonderful of course, but we really crave tomatoes.
There are always informal competitions among home gardeners and local growers for the first tomatoes of the year. Each has his technique in the race for the first tomatoes. Most involve protecting the plants from frost or cooler temperatures, feeding, staking, trimming and watering. There are all kinds of gadgets to be had in garden stores and catalogues, but the best traditions are home-made, and freely shared.
Finally tomato season is here. Whether from backyard gardens, or from local farmers, there is nothing like a fresh tomato. We eat them sliced on a plate, in sandwiches, hand-held with a sprinkle of salt, in salsa, pico de gallo, broiled, baked or sauced. Our homegrown ones are often imperfect or irregularly shaped with creases or bumps or cracks but it doesn’t matter. A truly ripe tomato is deeply colored, all the way though, dripping with incomparable flavor that can only come through slow vine-ripening. We eat tomatoes as often as we can get them, along with local corn.
Part of the home tomato-growing tradition is giving them away. Bags of them. Once they begin to ripen, they come on fast. As the fruit is picked, the plant continues to produce more. Conversations about tomatoes are begun among neighbors and co-workers, as well as recipes exchanged. As fall approaches, even the green tomatoes take on value as relish or as fried green tomatoes. Some are wrapped in newspaper to store in the basement to ripen slowly.
Then, with first frost, they are gone. I suppose scientists will continue to tinker with genetics, constantly trying to improve our food. Demand for having fresh produce year round seems to mean sacrificing flavor and nutrition for the looks of product we really don’t need, but what we yearn for.
But for now, the glorious summer celebration of the ripe tomato is certainly worth the wait.
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