01 September 2009


It's the annual onslaught.

Dad tried to warn me. He told everyone else to tell me, too - don't plant more than five tomato plants! I compromised (again this year) with five varieties: two Kentucky heirlooms, a Hungarian paste tomato, and I forget what others, but they're good 'uns. One plum, one smallish round - mixed with the Hungarian plums, dark red with black-green markings, they'll make wonderful pasta sauce for this winter. And of course, I don't even count the cherry tomato bush in the herb bed, between the driveway and the back door. We pick those in passing and eat them as we walk, still warm from the afternoon sun.

The Kentucky tomatoes are special, though. Joe Thienaman - named for a native son - has round fruit, fiery red and weighing in close to - even over - a pound apiece. If I try to carry more than four cradled in my arms, I start dropping them. Grandfather Ashlock is one of those meaty, deep pink tomatoes, not quite as monstrous as the JTs, but big. Double-globed, with the stem end set low in the center, so the only way to slice them is to cut the stem out in a V and split them at the crease, then slice the halves. The seeds are compactly placed, so the fruit is mostly just fruit, sweet and dribble-down-your-chin juicy.

The garlic got away from me. I didn't know until into the summer, talking to a local farmer at the farmer's market, that I should've clipped the sprouts - scapes, they're called - trimmed them back when they got 10-12 inches high, to force more energy into the bulbs. I also didn't know you can chop those scapes and use them like you would chives, but I reckon I'll weed the bed, mulch it down, and see if they come back next year. Bulbs will be bulbs.

We had beautiful zucchini early on - two varieties, one with dark green and yellow striped skins that got big without getting tough or mealy. It was a short season, but it was nice while it lasted. Zucchini boats stuffed with a mix of cornbread, almonds, mozzarella, and peppers made a lovely supper in July. The Japanese eggplant is just now starting to bloom - guess we'll see how that goes.

Missed out on the okra season, so I'm saving those seeds for next year, too. I figured it needed to be hot as Hades for okra, so I waited until August, and then - derned Kentucky! - August turned cool. Never would've happened if I'd had something in that needed cool...

On the other hand, I jumped the gun on the broccoli and cauliflower. Couldn't figure out why they got big and bushy and did absolutely nothing else, until a friend from up in Michigan pointed out they're winter crops - they aren't going to do anything until it gets down in the 40s at night! So I pulled those out, and we're going to replant them in October. See what happens then.

Potatoes - too wet this year to bother. Parsnips and carrots - later. They'll do for fall and winter crops. We have beans and a few peas, enough to freeze but not enough to can. But tomatoes...

My favorite summer lunch is a tomato sandwich - just sliced tomato, bread, and a tiny bit of mayonnaise and some pepper - and a tall glass of ice water. Last night, we had the perfect summer supper: baked chicken (Holly Clegg's Dijon Rosemary Chicken, with paprika added for fun - 10 minutes of prep, 50 minutes in the oven, and SO good), a little cornbread stuffing, and sliced tomatoes. I cut up four big fruit, and there were three small slices left when the four of us left the table.

Of course, the best part of the perfect summer supper is having everyone at the table, sitting down, eating slowly, talking and laughing and passing the plates again. No TV, no phone ringing. Just family. But even the talk comes back to the tomatoes this time of year. At one point, my daughter remarked that since we've been growing our own, eating them fresh from the garden and chemical-free, she has to ask the folks in restaurants to hold the tomatoes - they're no good any more. Once you've had a season of tomatoes fresh from the garden, ripened on the vine rather than in a crate on a truck coming in from California - and in season, not forced in a hothouse in mid-winter - commercial tomatoes just don't seem quite right. It's not that the commercial tomatoes have changed, just that once your mouth knows how a tomato is supposed to taste and feel, it gets right picky.

Maybe girls from Minnesota and Wisconsin get misty-eyed over broccoli or parsnips. I don't know, but I guess it could happen. I'm from North Carolina, and my dad was from Mississippi, and my mom is from Alabama, and for me, it's all about tomatoes.

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