An Ode to Tomatoes

An Ode to Tomatoes

My quest for the perfect tomato stems from an intense desire to capture a taste from my childhood, when vegetables seemed to be unfettered by the degree of mass production currently poisoning the American palate.

My father had a garden that took up most of our backyard — it was the size of the swimming pool that now occupies its sacred space. It was such an adventure to open the gate and go inside with him — there were rows upon rows of tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant. I would impatiently wait for the day each summer when the tomatoes would be ready; I knew that once we had one, we would have bushels, and it would be time for feasting. My mother would cut up the luscious jewels and mix them with fresh basil, oregano, and thinly-slithered onions, then drizzle them with olive oil. We would gorge on bowls of tomatoes served with Italian bread throughout the remaining summer and fall months.

Since my father passed away, the garden has changed location and decreased in size, but each spring my mother plants her vegetables with dedication. Perhaps she, too, is trying to capture a moment in time. Now, aside from her ability to refinish furniture (her family nickname is “Bob Vila”), the woman can grow a tree from a dead root, so the garden always flourishes. But the tomatoes are not the same.

It isn’t her fault. The plants one now buys in garden centers are without question of lower quality than those of the past. I finally realized I would have to make a pilgrimage somewhere to find true heirloom seeds — it seems to be the only way for me to capture the taste of my childhood summers. Though the tomatoes my mother grows are far superior to any that can be found in a supermarket, they still lack the juicy, tart punch of the ones I remember from long ago.

My family remains undaunted, however. We are a dedicated group of eaters, and still feel the same anticipation when August rolls around: We know it’s almost time. As soon as the word gets out, various family members find it necessary to “drop by” my mother’s house to “say hello.”  I am on to them.  Out of selfish necessity I have taken to hoarding my own stash; in a family of seven children one must be quick to get the prize. We all know the window of opportunity is very small, and the tomatoes must be seized with gusto. Serafino would be proud.

I think he would also be delighted to know that his daughter has delved into the history of basil, which his forefathers worshipped with an odd kind of reverence. Given the historical journey I’ve traveled this past month, as well as my obsession with the tomato and its perfect partner, this issue has become my favorite to date. Oddly enough, it seems that tomatoes are a fruit to which people have extreme love/hate reactions.  Luckily, in our case, everyone around here seems to share a fondness for this sassy little love apple.

Later this month we will talk with Chef Charlie Trotter, who also shares an affinity for this August delight, and we will examine basil on a more gustatory level, with recipes that will set you to salivating. At this rate, we’ll be sorry to see the end of summer, but when we think of the harvest Autumn has to offer, we can somehow see our way through it.  Enjoy.

Top photo: Kelly Cline