For those of us with a devotion to tomatoes, the anticipation of the first harvest of summer is something akin to a child waiting for Christmas. Instead of sugar plums dancing in our heads, we have tomatoes in all their shapes, sizes and colors along with all the ways we are going to prepare and eat them.
While we are waiting, we are also reminiscing—in the old Proustian manner—of tomato seasons gone by. There was the surprisingly sweet heirloom cherry tomatoes my husband and I ate with abandon one August in Maine, or the memory of standing in my grandfather’s garden and biting into a tomato like an apple, still feeling the warmth of the summer sun on its skin. These are among the tomato experiences I hope to replicate each summer.
I credit my grandfather with introducing me to the wonders of tomatoes. It may seem odd to contemporary readers in this age of farmers’ markets and all manner of heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables, but back when I was growing up in the suburbs there was nary a home-grown tomato to be had. In our house, frozen vegetables and hard, tasteless, store-bought tomatoes reigned supreme. It was only on our annual summer visits to my grandparents in rural Ohio that I was treated to fresh vegetables.
My grandfather was a gruff man. Even when he laughed (which was infrequently) it was more of growl than a proper laugh. Just one low, short burst of a “haaaa” sound and he was done. Affectionate he was not, and when he did touch you it was more of a hard squeeze on the knee or a rough hand on the shoulder the sensation from which tended to linger long after his hand had been removed.
Still, I know he loved us grandchildren. He used to pick us up and put us in the back of his old blue 1950s era Ford pickup truck and drive us down to the dump (there was always a purpose to our outings). I can still conjure the smell of that slightly rusty flatbed and gasoline from the exhaust pipe as we drove (not to mention the garbage that rode along with us.)
Including my cousins, we were five or six screaming children having the time of our lives bouncing up and down on the country roads. My grandfather would be driving up front with the window down and his arm resting on the door looking back at us occasionally to make sure we were all accounted for. It was better than any amusement park experience that I can remember. We pestered him constantly to take us for a ride and he happily accommodated.
Like many from his generation, his life was full of hardship. When he was a young boy, his mother died. When his father remarried, his stepmother rejected him and his sister so they were raised by a maiden aunt. During the Depression, he was often without work and I imagine he must have felt some shame in not being able to provide for his wife and then-three children. I have a sense there was a lot of anger born of feelings of inadequacy that found its way into the household when my mother was growing up. He never talked about those years, but my grandmother told a few sketchy stories about hard times that left an impression on me.
I recently heard a partial re-broadcast of a radio interview with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s legendary editor at Knopf who died August 2. In it, she was describing the importance of food scenes in literature as a way to flesh out characters. The point she was making was that—to borrow from Brillat Savarin—we are what we eat. In other words, what a character in a story (or any of us) eats reveals something about their nature. To learn that every Sunday night my grandfather would sit down to a sandwich of stinky Limburger cheese and sliced raw onions is all you need to know to understand his emotional make-up.
There is so much about our grandparents that will forever remain a mystery. We were not there for most of their lives. And when we were children, their lives mostly seemed to float above us, touching us only briefly, like the occasional butterfly that alights on our skin while on their way to other business. For me anyway, my grandparents were purpose-built to delight me and nothing more.
Now that they are long gone and I have the perspective of maturity I would like to know them better. I am left with guesses and nothing more other than my own distilled memories. Among them is my tomato memory.
I was visiting over a long weekend one summer after I had moved to New York as a young adult. It was in the morning of the day I was scheduled to fly back to the city and I had gone out to my grandfather’s garden to pick some tomatoes to take with me on the plane. The light on that late summer day was soft and golden and the air was warm enough that by late morning the dew had dried. With the sun on my face, I stood between the rows of neatly tended vegetables, the soft, tilled earth under my feet, and reached for a red, ripe orb. It was warm to the touch and just begged to be eaten on the spot.
When its warm flesh touched my lips just seconds from being plucked from the vine, I closed my eyes and made a mental imprint of the moment. For me, it was the essence of tomato-ness, a kind of Platonic ideal that has stuck with me all this time. I never captured it again, but I think of it every summer when the tomatoes start to ripen.
Of course, at the time I thought my experience was unique. But years later, I came across this wonderful passage in a translation of Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody (whose main character has a brief supporting role in her more famous The Elegance of the Hedgehog):
…”I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of Aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of a refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil….The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin—slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.”
Now that’s quite an homage, and one that any tomato-lover can appreciate.
How would my grandfather have enjoyed the best of the tomato season? In a humble BLT sandwich, of course.