Monday, March 17, 2008

You Say Tomato, I Say Connecticut

“Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What would life be like without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love and home grown tomatoes.”

~John Denver, 'Home Grown Tomatoes'
(from a song written by Guy Clark)

If you are fortunate to share dialogue with my mother and you happen to mention the word microwave, she will abruptly and momentarily stray off-topic to inform you that said microwave
does in fact “cook from the inside out.”
This is likely a factoid she picked up in the late ‘70s, committed to memory, and now spontaneously recalls, as she suffers from an involuntary stimulus-response condition I like to call ‘momism.’

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed hearing, deconstructing and mocking these mom-isms.
One would think I repeat them for the sheer sake of folly at Mother’s unfortunate expense. But the fact of the matter is, while I listen and laugh, I also learn.

Over time I have come to realize that certain trigger-words encourage these colorful, if not always logical descriptions.
Where most of us depend on basic adjectives, my mother adds a bit more flavor to the pot. Old becomes “As old as Methuzula.”
More than will become “More than you can shake a stick at” or
(my personal favorite), “More than Carter has little liver pills.”

While I have never met Methuzula (but I would imagine she is still alive), my stick-shaking days were over before they started, and Carter sounds like a good candidate for rehab, I cannot deny my appreciation for my mother’s involuntary response to any discussion about the tomato

Years ago, for my mother’s birthday, I purchased a Wusthof
tomato knife. As I presented her with the gift, I expected and hoped she would re-tell the story of her summertime youth spent visiting relatives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
She was both pleased and panicked by my gift. While she appreciated the form and function of the knife, she feared the backlash of inherited Italian superstition which dictates that the recipient of any sharp, pointed object must immediately compensate the donor with a penny to ward off any opportunity for malfeasance or conflict.
Impatiently, I yielded to a momentary delay as she rifled through her purse in search of a penny for the sake of peace. I knew better than to deny superstitious reciprocity, and so I pocketed the penny as her tomato story unfolded…

She, an only child, traveled with parents and elders from
Brooklyn to Waterbury during the dog days of summer.
The seemingly endless trip met with steep, hilly roads before
finally approaching the old storied house with the coveted
front-porch entry. Upon arrival, barely able to contain her excitement, she bounded barefoot into the backyard and made a beeline for the garden where her eager palms would be baptized with the sweet, pulpy nectar of homegrown tomatoes. Heat-fatigued and ravenous, there was little time or energy for ceremonious slicing or sandwiching. She plucked and ate the scarlet orbs as if they were apples, one after another, allowing their green caps to fall
back to the earth.
Sun-kissed and satiated, she retreated indoors to absorb the annual enchantments of her visit; doting relatives, a prized piano that mysteriously played itself, a sleepy sun room, and cool breezes invited by a favorite front-porch swing.
Those were good times.

I never grow tired of hearing that story. The older and wiser I get however, I realize that like any good story, this one evolves over time. With each re-telling, the trip gets longer, the hills get steeper and the summer gets hotter. But nevertheless, the tomato experience remains the same, and each time I am left with a nagging thought;
I want that tomato.

My own personal experience with fresh tomatoes is bland, at best.
I seem to have a knack for choosing the most flavorless,
mealy-fleshed specimens at the market.
Where gardening is concerned, I have been shamefully remiss in cultivating and caring for such prolific perennials. I guess that
leaves me at the mercy of commercial growers who harvest green, under-ripe tomatoes (for the sake of shelf-stability and transport), which then undergo a chemically-induced coloring to attract unsuspecting shoppers.
While those of us vulnerable to commercialism (and too lazy
to kick up a fuss) see red and reach for tasteless tomatoes,
those well-informed, proactive consumers see red, and magnanimously call for change.

The fact is a good tomato, like a good story, should be allowed to ripen naturally. Most would agree that the best tomatoes are indeed homegrown.
Some would argue that only heirloom varieties come close to those prized tomatoes of yesteryear.
And likewise, where mom-isms are concerned, their intrinsic value is rooted in a lifetime of noteworthy events and ideas whose constant recollection and usage become a natural part of ones permanent landscape.
A dialogue shared with my mother free of mom-isms, would offer the same experience as sharing an under-ripe, chemically modified tomato; flavorless and forgettable.

And so, as I browse seed catalogs and await the arrival of summer’s bounty in search of sandwich-worthy specimens, I will be mindful of that Connecticut tomato and how lucky I am to have shared a colorful memory, ripe with hyperbole and flavor.

I don’t expect I will soon forget the collection of family stories
I have been privy to over the years. My mother has more of them than you can shake a stick at and I’ll bet you a dollar-to-a-donut that there are still more untold. I expect that I will share my own stories, as well as hers, with my own children until I am
as old as Methuzula or until I’ve forgotten.
And perhaps on a day when it’s raining to beat the band, I will cozy up with a hot mug of something from the microwave (which incidentally, cooks from the inside out) and write them down
so they might live on long after I’m gone.

Because what would life be like without true love and
homegrown tomatoes?

Two things money can’t buy, that only get sweeter with time.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


A few noteworthy tomato quotes:

It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
~Lewis Grizzard

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world—except for a nice MLT—mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is lean and the tomato is ripe.”
~William Goldman

A number of rare or newly experienced foods have been claimed to be aphrodisiacs. At one time this quality was even ascribed to the tomato. Reflect on that when you are next preparing the family salad.”
~Jane Grigson

High-tech tomatoes. Mysterious milk. Supersquash. Are we supposed to eat this stuff? Or is it going to eat us?”
~Annita Manning

And by the way,
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite mom-isms:

While we Irish folk (on my father’s side) were content with
Erin Go Bragh” to express our appreciation for
‘Ireland the Beautiful,’ my mother and grandmother were more comfortable (literally and figuratively speaking) with this one:

Erin Go Bra-less

I heard it once a year for at least twenty years and I don’t doubt it passed her lips at least once today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In our neighborhood you can't throw a dead cat without hitting a farmstand. Being so close to the Hamptons who are known for their home-grown award-winning tomatoes (or is that corn?). There must be one farmstand within a stones throw of your house that has a tomato you can sink your teeth in. Sandra