When A Tomato Creates A Feast of Memories

When A Tomato Creates A Feast of Memories
© marty kleva

August 29, 2008

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Today I picked the first Brandywine heirloom tomato in my garden and could hardly wait to get it to the kitchen for lunch. It looked so good on the vine with its rosy pink toned translucent skin I almost wanted to wait another day, but having lusted for it over a week now — I had to do it.

It was a good thing too, as I was very hungry after an extended morning of research and writing. Into the kitchen it came, and after a bit of a rinse, I pulled out some spontaneous ingredients to go with it.

Cutting into it revealed a soft yet firm flesh that was an even light red all the way through. The tomato essence burst forth and brought forward memories of how a tomato should really smell.

Visions of my parents’ garden jumped into my mind, one of about seven garden plots over an area of several acres that also included an assortment of orchard trees, a strawberry patch, and a small vineyard.

I can see the tomato garden with the rows of plants as high as I was tall when I was eight — the wooden stakes marking each plant that was carefully tied at intervals along the stem, and the times when my mother would take the salt shaker to the garden to feast right from the vine.

Before my father acquired a rototiller, we always dug the gardens by hand each Spring. Of course this means with a shovel — you know — hold it by the handle with the point of the shovel on the ground, put your left foot on the shoulder of the shovel and if you are a child, step up onto it. Adults need only to give a good push with their foot to send the shovel into the ground and then lift it and toss the dirt over on top of the already freshly turned soil.

When it came time to plant the tomatoes, we would go either on a Friday evening or early Saturday morning down to a place that cultivated plants near Hurr’s Dairy. There, in a cold frame they would already have the tomatoes in bunches of six or twelve wrapped in wet newspaper, looking like a burrito, ready to sell.

My father would choose his varieties along with pepper plants and eggplants, and then we would go home to lay out the string lines to mark the rows and dig the holes in the garden.

Inevitably as my father planted the tomatoes, he would mix too much manure into the hole, and my mother, who was the one to teach my father how to garden, would be the one to say,

“Now Anthony, you’re going to burn the roots of the plants — that’s too much manure.”

But he just could not resist and oftentimes the plants would suffer several weeks of setback before taking off with a spurt of growth.

Staking the tomatoes was a daylong affair. The stakes had to be brought out of the storage barn and carried up in bundles to the garden, then sorted through to determine those that could be used. Being of hardwood, and the bottom end hand-hewn with an axe into a sharp point, my father would pound them into the ground next to each plant when it reached about a foot high. Many times I was the trusty helper holding the stake with my two gloved hands, as he would pound the stake in with a sledgehammer.

My parents always tied their tomatoes with garden twine that once it was cut into about ten inch lengths, I got to unravel into the three strands it was made up of. When I was older, then I too was allowed to tie the plants. Usually we tied and suckered the plants at the same time, removing that renegade growth that can leach a lot of growing energy away from the main stem.

When I walked through the tomatoes, the leaves would brush up against the skin of my upper arms and release that wonderful distinct aroma that also left a pollen-like residue and scent on my body.

Watering the plants was a major after-dinner affair that took practically the whole family to carry out. We used well water that we hand-pumped into many five-gallon buckets the night before and that stood out all day to absorb the heat of the sun. We never poured fresh-cold well water on the tomatoes.

We resembled a chain gang carrying the buckets from the back-yard pump to the garden rows where another person using an old coffee-can would dispense the water to each plant. When the empty buckets came back up to the pump it was up to those of us who were pumping to refill them for the next day.

Throughout the season the garden yielded bushels of tomatoes that we preserved for the winter using a hot-water bath method. My mother and sisters and I would go down to the fruit cellar and bring up bushels of empty glass canning jars, wash them in hot sudsy water and check the tops for nicks — those that had a chip out of the rim were put aside as they will not seal properly.

Once we had all the jars clean and assembled on the kitchen table, we filled the kitchen sink with hot water to which we added the tomatoes. This made it easier to peel the tomato that we would then halve or quarter and stuff into the empty jars till they were full to the brim. Press a dinner knife down into the jar in several places to release any air, wipe the rim clean and add a warm lid and screw top, and the jar of red beauty seemed to come alive through the glass.

This was an all-day affair that sometimes went on for several days and was repeated throughout the summer as the crop came ripe. This was our sustenance for the winter’s making of spaghetti sauce for our traditional Sunday mid-day meal, and connected for us the importance of harvesting and preserving the main ingredient.

By the time we were finished canning tomatoes, I didn’t want to see another one — at least not for another few days.

Sometimes, depending on the amount of the crop and variety, my mother would put the whole tomato through a mill producing a puree that she would cook-down to remove much of the water content and then we would bottle that to also put through a hot-water bath. Sometimes she would use the combination of puree and whole tomatoes to make Sunday’s sauce.

When we lifted the ten or so jars out of the steam bath, the tomatoes took on that distinctive vibrant glow reminiscent of the Tuscany sun, and when we transported them back down the stairs to the fruit cellar and stacked them on the shelves, they were a gorgeous sight to behold.

The brilliant sun-kissed red tomatoes next to jars of green and yellow string beans, below the shelf of black currants, and rosy peaches, contrasted against the pale translucent color of pears and apple sauce. Add rows of jars of last year’s purple grape juice and jam, and therein sits a feast for the eyes!

My most favorite way to serve a great fresh tomato is how my mother would make it, and what I call ‘fresca-style’ — rounds of thick sliced tomato on a large platter — add slices of our own homegrown cucumbers and onions, all spritzed with vinegar and olive oil. We always used Bertolli from Tuscany as there was a reported connection between he and my grandfather.

So that’s what I am creating today — a variation on the theme al fresca, adding a peeled and sliced cucumber into a bowl, a few fresh blueberries for contrast and sweetness, slivers of red onion to enhance the taste and color of the tomato — a quick splash of apple cider vinegar and virgin olive oi, and voila! — a salad to feast upon.

My first bite is solely a tomato wedge — mmmm just like those fresh from my parents' garden.

The taste is just as I remember — actually the taste expands into layers of pleasure — adding an irrepressible burst of aroma that collides with the mouth and tongue — delicioso moltissimo!

A feast of memories that brings together the wonderful things from which life is made — beauty, love, and caring — and a special present moment to relive it all.


~ mek

Photo: Brandywine Heirloom Tomato


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