Feast and Famine: A Life in Tomatoes

In my Arizona childhood, they were giant pinkish wedges tasteless as wax lips, lying on iceberg lettuce—our Sunday salad, my dad’s one acquiescence to vegetables.

My father sometimes brought home cherry tomatoes, little spheres of doom that met my teeth like bursting aneurysms and just as welcome. Back when you could admit to eating fast food, tomato slices draped over burgers like transparent negligées. “I only like tomatoes on sandwiches,” I’d say in childhood, dodging the waxy and bursting scenarios.

47030d72dd37d8842bbbe63ecc9869b1The canned tomatoes I saw at my mother’s spilled like sewage out of pipes into the runny chili she made for company. They only register as food in retrospect.

Last March my son and I started tomato seeds in trays, sunned them on the kitchen table and watered them through the last cold months. One develops a  primordial affection for seedlings—their life connected to one’s own in the promise of food. As weather warmed, we set the babies outside a few hours a day to “harden them off”.

Hardening off: the process of moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually introduce them to the direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights

We planted 6 cherry tomato seedlings in the garden, and one beefsteak tomato plant purchased from a nursery. By the height of summer, the beefsteak plant had grown 6 feet tall before it toppled under the weight of production, the galvanized cage folding under the strain. The cherry tomato plants were noisy children putting forth tiny fruit at a frenetic pace. The beefsteak? Slow and steady wins the race.

When the plants started fruiting I felt a certain panic. We had some luck with herbs— parley, mint, sage, rosemary— and with zucchini (called green squash here). Corn disappointed, but cucumbers thrived. (Did you know they’re prickly?) Tomatoes, on the other hand, led an assault of fecundity. They mocked our “backyard gardener” aspirations. This is serious, their message. You must tend the garden.

You must visit, pick the fruit, and then figure out what to do with it.

My life became unmanageable. Tomatoes mounded on a green platter on the counter, signaling homegrown-country-goodness to our AirBnB guests from the big city, but a harbinger of fruit flies and waste to me if I didn’t GET ON IT:

tomato sauce
tomato soup
pico de gallo
caprese salad
tomato cucumber salad

I whittled away a couple pounds by making sun-dried (via the oven) tomatoes, and thought of a college afternoon in Bronxville with my friend, Jennifer, a heavy jar of homemade, sundried tomatoes her mother had sent. We sat on her bed eating them straight out the jar, the first I’d ever had, their flavor sexual in its intensity.

sun dried tomatoes
roasted tomatoes
tomato juice
spaghetti sauce
Ziploc bags full of frozen tomatoes

A little buck-toothed gouge in a beefsteak tomato warmed my heart. I puzzled over Mr. McGregor’s hostility towards Peter. Rabbits had braved our homicidal Jack Russell and yowling beagle for this garden. I had pleased a wild rabbit. Satisfaction. I shared with rabbits, I shared strawberries with ants, and kale with white butterflies.

At the local farm store, where bees and flies attend the outdoor stands, I overheard a man answer his wife, “Well, there are insects all over the vegetables out in the fields.” Yes…even those sanitized, waxed, clean apples in the fridge drawer…they made acquaintance with all manner of insects and dirt out in the fields. Everything vegetable and fruit we eat was once dirty. Dirt is good.

An upcycled, iced-venti-latte cup packed full of tomatoes went to our German friends up the street. Used egg cartons I saved for their chickens were a Trojan horse sneaking in tomatoes. The sight of a neighbor back from the lake to mow his lawn meant a bag of them on his car to take back to camp. I left them on the old milk box outside the door of the sweet widow across the street. She later texted her regrets to my offer of more, “My plants are doing pretty well this year.”

A whirlwind trip to New York City where I had 3 different hostesses meant 3 three little boxes of tomatoes, tied with ribbon for presentation’s sake.

This afternoon, during a break from writing this post, I suggested to my pale blue vegan daughter, “Let me make you a black bean and tomato salad.”

“I had tomatoes for breakfast.”

“But let me make you the salad now.”

“I don’t want it.”

White rage flashed in my eyes. She interjected:

Why did your mother beat you?

Because I didn’t eat enough tomatoes.

I made salsa instead.

Abundance to me in Scottsdale was other people’s fancy cars, a house in Arcadia, giant diamond rings on the tennis court. Here, abundance is summer’s steadily growing woodpile, food ready for the harvest, endless regeneration. But endlessness, that’s a desert concept. Lately the mornings have been chilly, a few yellow leaves falling here and there and the cherry tomato vines quietly shutting down, obeying the change of season by slumping towards the earth.

Yesterday I still managed to send a basketful of the diminishing beefsteaks to the English next door. The husband clarified, “Tom-ah-to, not To-may-to.” His wife’s thank you email — “We are really enjoying the tomatoes . . . I shan’t forget to return the basket.”

My outlay: Peacevine OG Cherry Tomato Seeds – $1.40 and I suppose maybe $5 for the larger vine. With the slightest human cooperation, the earth is boundless in her generosity.

It’s customary to burn the debris in a tomato patch at the end of the season. Fire destroys pests and bacteria that might overwinter, and adds ash to the soil that will benefit next year’s garden. The plants that worked so hard all summer will soon go up in flames. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.