Today marks the very day I was able to pluck the first ripe tomatoes of 2010 from my gardens here in the Great White North; three small, but beautiful Green Zebras for those who are keeping track. It’s also the day I begin existing solely on tomatoes, whole grain bread, fresh cracked pepper and mayonnaise, but my love of tomato sandwiches is a story for another day.
Today is a day I look forward to all year, every year; and since summer just wouldn’t be summer without at least one obligatory column dedicated to the tomato it’s a day I am fully committed to commemorating here. Anyone who has enjoyed a tomato fresh from the garden or Farmer’s Market can nod their head and heartily agree as they read the following words: The square, milky orange-red things found in supermarkets shouldn’t even legally be marketed as tomatoes! The taste, the beauty, the smell! In none of these can supermarket tomatoes compete with a good garden fresh, heirloom.
Even hybrid varieties outperform when sourced fresh and local — as a matter of fact, just between you and me, there are a few in my garden that I look forward to almost as much as the heirlooms who flank them in neighboring beds. Still, there is something wholly satisfying about eating a fruit that not only is superior in every way my hedonistic-self desires, but also carries in its very flesh the history of a people, a species, a world; and there is where the heirlooms will win out, every single time.
I’ve never been a things person. I won’t deny the little fixes I crave. My existence is far from austerity. I have my material loves. Keeping up with the Joneses was a hobby I considered taking up in the early years of high school, but that’s as far as it went. I often joke it stems from a fear, nay! a full-blown phobia, of commitment. If I’m honest though, I have just as many attachments as the Joneses. Mine are just in the earth, rather than the things man has put atop it.
I have somehow reconciled a being that is plagued with both a strong wanderlust and deep roots in the history of the earth herself. Our home and budding farm is on land that has been in my husband’s family for many years, our favorite summer vacationing spot is the farm that has been in my family for nearly as many. There we pull our camper up alongside the cabin my own grandfather built when my mother was just a girl; he’s the same man from whom I imagine my love of gardening was inherited.
He always tended a large plot. And in the latest days of winter and early spring the back room of the farm house that no longer stands there I remember hundreds of seedlings emerging from their small pots; covering every last horizontal surface. He too loved tomatoes. A stout German man with prickly cheeks and an affinity for making his granddaughters blush — “Have you been kissing boys?” he’d ask us every time we entered the warm kitchen where he almost always sat at the head of the table playing solitaire and planning what to cook next, he was a wonderful cook — he passed away when I was sixteen. I hadn’t yet discovered my love of dirt and growing. If there’s any thing I regret not inheriting it was his garden wisdom. I never had the opportunity to ask.
And therein lies my attraction to heirloom tomatoes. Though I’m rather certain my grandfather grew his share of hybrids the history of the tomatoes themselves being passed from generation to generation — their open-pollination, their consistency, their familial resemblance year after year never reverting to an earlier set of traits less desirable than those they presently show; inherited like fine lace, grand pianos, holiday traditions; providing sustenance to each generation as they grow, mature, and age — they represent a continuation of the absence of agricultural knowledge between Depression Era grandparents and their grandchildren, a re-entrance to a more wholesome world; a connection with my grandfather.
Do you love heirloom tomatoes for reasons deeper than the taste, the look, the smell? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
And while we’re on the subject, all of the heirloom tomato art featured in this column is by Bobby Joe Fontenot on Etsy. Go pick yourself up an original watercolor or two — your kitchen will thank you come the long dreary days of winter.