I know that everyone is currently obsessed with kale, The Powerhouse Vegetable, but of all the vegetables currently making their abundant appearance at the Farmer’s Market, I really only have eyes for The Tomato.
I have always loved tomatoes, but it was from my father that I actually learned Tomato Worship. A different father might have just let the advent of the Supermarket Tomato unfold without comment, as most American parents undoubtedly did. What difference did it make if that pale, hard little wedge that came with the salad didn’t have any more taste than the iceberg lettuce, especially since–at Chuck’s Steakhouse, where we always ate on fancy family occasions–the salad was only a vehicle for the luscious, ketchup-plus-mayonnaise-plus-chunks-of-pickle-relish “Russian” dressing it came bathed in?
But to my father, the little wedges were a subject of outrage. “Pink rocks!” he called them each and every time, and then he would deliver a little lecture about the decline and fall of civilization as deduced from the fact that most people didn’t even have the slightest idea anymore what a real, genuine, fresh, homegrown tomato was supposed to taste like! During a large stretch of my childhood, when we lived in the middle of Connecticut farmland, there was a blessed period every year in August and September when farmstands filled with the real thing: plump, velvety-soft red tomatoes so sweet that my father and I would eat them like what they really were–not vegetables, but fruit–with the juice running down our faces.
So right about this time of year, I tend to get tunnel vision at the market. Cabbage? Kohlrabi? Squash blossoms? Who cares? There’s such a limited window in our part of the country when a tomato really does behave like a fruit that it would be a sin not to take advantage of that. Right now I’m just enjoying them raw, but next week, Diary, I’ll reveal to you the Two Things I Do With Tomatoes That Make Them Almost More Worth Waiting for Than Eating Them Raw.
I just want to tell you one thing about the ferocity of my father’s belief in The Tomato, though: In the later years of his life, when he and my mother had left the Connecticut farmland for a much more suburban property, he insisted on growing cherry tomatoes in a small kitchen garden in the backyard. Very few of them ever made it into salad, or even into the actual kitchen for that matter, because it was too tempting to just stand there and pop them into your mouth straight from the plant. “Just like candy,” my father would say, in a reverent voice so unlike that voice used to cast scorn on Pink Rocks.
The year after he died, the kitchen garden lay neglected. That year my mother struggled with both grief and cancer and she’d never been the gardening type to start with. So I was shocked to discover, on an August visit from Chicago, one single cherry-tomato plant, in full fruit-bearing mode. I knew they weren’t perennials, but apparently left to themselves they can re-seed. The sight of the plant, soldiering on without the gardener, completely wrecked me in a way I was trying very hard not to feel wrecked.
I took a handful of the little fruits–sweet as candy–and left them on my father’s grave, where all the other graves around had flowers.
I knew that he would know exactly what I meant.