Tuesday July 1, 2014
I still remember sitting with my legs barely touching the floor at the kitchen counter waiting for my mom to slice up that beautiful red orb. I’m not sure how I fell in love but tomatoes seemed to be ingrained into our Italian Polish background. Every year the largest portion of our garden was allotted to tomatoes. I know heirlooms are all the rage now but we grew good old-fashioned Jersey tomatoes. I think we had Early Girls, definitely Beef masters, Plum and regular Cherry tomatoes, nothing fancy but full of strong tomato flavor. Everyday I would check the garden for that telltale sign of blush that the tomatoes were about to pop.
The first tomatoes were treasured and they deserved the purest preparation. With the family gathered around, these gems were simply sliced, sprinkled with salt and pepper and savored. I would sit there in amazement thinking that this food we were eating started from a tiny seed and now delivered the most delicious taste I could imagine. I sliced my first one of the season tonight alone but in my mind, my whole family was with me sharing the first taste of summer.
As the tomatoes trickle and then flood in, we eat them in all different ways. My favorite is how my mom loves them. She gets two slices of white bread, slathers them with mayo, piles them with sliced tomatoes and just adds salt and pepper to make the simplest sandwich; Divine. I like to add a slice of white American cheese and call it a day. I have told anyone that will listen that if I am ever on death row this will be my last meal of choice. I know in the South they fry them green but Mom always fried the red ones. All three of her boys would wait patiently by the stove waiting for them to come off the pan. We do Caprese salads (of course you have to grow basil with tomatoes), tomato bread salads, oven roasted tomatoes, and yes ultimately we do tons of gravy. Italians from New Jersey call it gravy; some uninformed people call it sauce.
My Italian grandmother was the master. She taught my brothers and me how to cook, make gravy, meatballs, homemades (pasta) and everything in between. We absorbed it like sponges. My grandfather had the green thumb. He showed us how to work the soil, feed the plants, and harvest the rewards. He was organic before it was a thing. I still remember kitchen scrapes being returned to the soil to add nutrients for growing plants. We were so lucky to have them as teachers.
Unfortunately, the green thumb skipped my Dad but for reasons unknown I was drawn to growing/farming immediately. My brothers followed just a few years behind and now it is part of our everyday life. As I sit here writing this I realize how much something as simple as growing a tomato connects me with my heritage, my ancestors and my present family.
As the tomato season would draw to a close and as frost would threaten, my grandmother would still continue the tomato love affair that would last all winter long with pickling the last green tomatoes that would not reach their maturity. She would “put up” (can) red tomatoes to break open during the cold of winter reminding us of summer’s bounty and what we could look forward to in the next wonderful season.