Monday, September 14, 2015
I have a thing for tomatoes. I could eat them every single day - more than once a day - and it wouldn't be enough. This time of year, when the tomato plants are groaning with fruit, is one of the best, I think. I can't grow my own tomatoes very well, though I have tried and tried. There's something about the angles of sun exposure in our yard - the sunniest areas are also much too hot and are difficult to water. This year, we tried buckets on the patio. They were modestly successful - we had three cherry tomatoes and one small, streaky-green heirloom slicing tomato. We're studying our tomato difficulties with great seriousness; computerized soil-temperature-taking systems are in use as we speak. This is not necessarily my area of expertise, but I'm eager to see the findings. If they lead to future bumper crops of tomatoes for my eating pleasure, so much the better.
In the meantime, I buy tomatoes in the store, and I take as many homegrown handouts as I can get. I like just about all varieties of tomato, and I often buy assortments, such as the Mini Heirloom tomatoes sold at Trader Joe's (that's where the tomatoes in these photos came from). My in-laws grow tomatoes at their house, while they're in the US for the summer. They live just two blocks away while they're here, in a house with a big, sunny patio in the back. They have great exposure for tomatoes and they grow large, delicious, deep-red ones in rolling planters that they move throughout the day. I gladly take bagfuls of their tomatoes from July through September.
This year, their tomatoes developed a fungus once ripened and quickly deteriorated. To say that I was disappointed barely begins to describe it. I was gutted, I'd been looking forward to their tomatoes all year. I hope that between their gardening expertise (my mother-in-law is a botanist, after all; she does know a thing or two about plant life), and our intensive, scholarly tomato research, we'll all be enjoying oodles of tomatoes next summer.
Do you ever try to trace where your love for something started? I think about this often when it comes to foods, especially tomatoes because I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't crave them. I think it began when I was a child. We had a neighbor across the street who grew enormous Beefsteak tomatoes in his backyard. He was an older man, in his eighties when I was a small child, and he lived with his daughter and her husband. His name was Bill, but my sisters and I called him Papa Bill, out of respect and to distinguish him from our own Grandpa Bill.
We liked to go over to their house with our mother, to chat with them all on the driveway (it was that kind of neighborhood; everyone sat outside in lawn chairs on summer evenings). Papa Bill would show us his tomato plants. He was very proud of them. We'd watch their progress all summer; by August, they were dragging on the ground under the weight of their fruit. When they ripened, he'd send us home with a paper bag full of softball-sized tomatoes. Our mother would give us each a brown Tupperware bowl and we'd sit on the front steps as the summer night closed in, eating our tomatoes like apples, trying to use our bowls to catch the drips. Juice ran down our arms, into our sleeves, and down our necks into our collars. We needed baths when we were finished. I savored the taste until it was time to brush my teeth.
Papa Bill's tomatoes were one of the highlights of my childhood summers. He died when I was twelve years old and I'll always remember him for his generosity and his incredible tomato garden. I know it's because of him and his tomatoes that I love them so much now.
I dream of eating tomatoes like those again someday. The ones I've been enjoying this summer have been pretty darn good, though. I still eat them plain, sometimes like an apple the way I did as a child, but more often I eat them sliced, or chopped in a salad with other ingredients. In the summer, I'm happiest with lighter foods, and I find that a tomato salad with some good bread and a little hummus, or cheese, makes a very good lunch - or even dinner if it's one of those exceptionally hot, slow days where I don't feel like moving, let alone cooking a full meal. I think simple is best when it comes to enjoying fresh ingredients, don't you? I usually dress my sliced tomatoes with salt, pepper, a little bit of olive oil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. When I have fresh basil, I tear a few leaves into small pieces and scatter them over the dressed tomatoes. I can eat pounds of tomatoes this way; heck, I can eat pounds of good tomatoes whole, with my hands, standing over the kitchen sink. Slicing, dressing and plating are optional steps. Silverware need not apply.