11/24/14

The Tomato Pilgrim

Alas, this would be a better post in early summer, but this is my pilgrimage story that I told at my cockTALE party. You are ready for storytelling this Thanksgiving, right? The theme is FOOD. Tell a five minute or less story about food and ask everyone else to share one too. I'll post mine next week. Enjoy your holiday!

In my mind, the perfect tomato is big, as big as a grown-man's fist. It is deep red, firm. It is cut length wise into thick rounds and it is sprinkled with salt and pepper. I encountered such a tomato for the first time when I was five. It was in Fresno, and it came straight from my great-aunt Minnie's garden. Minnie was my grandpa's sister, and she had made an enormous luncheon because my mother had brought us to visit from Utah. I had never met my aunt Minnie or most of the people sitting at that table, but I ate tomato slice after tomato slice and I felt not only perfectly happy but also enthralled with the larger world those tomatoes introduced me to--a world that did not consist of frozen corn, frozen peas.
            I did not have tomatoes that delicious again until we moved to Northern California some years later and I had my grandfather's tomatoes. He grew them every year, and he grew so many that all summer long he would give us big grocery sacks full of them and we would eat them every night. By the end of the summer we would be unimpressed---pleased to have them and always ready to eat them, but also bored by how pedestrian they had become. We were like Adam and Eve. We didn't even know we were living in paradise until we were kicked out. Although that's not quite true because I did know how good I had at. For as long as I had my grandpa's tomatoes and a good decade afterward, I refused to buy supermarket tomatoes. I found them offensive in the same way that a lover of Michelangelo might be offended by a paper-clip sculpture I put on a pedestal and call La Pieta.    
            But as the Buddha tells us, change is constant. And my tomato paradise that I took for granted could not last forever. Eventually, I settled in Southern California and my grandpa moved to a retirement home. One day, I went to the grocery store, and I bought tomatoes. Then I went again, and soon I didn't even notice how bland they were.
            But when we moved to my house, I slowly began my pilgrimage back to the perfect tomato. My first attempts failed, the tomatoes I produced tasting watery and tough. But I persevered, learning more, getting stronger as I journeyed longer. Now I have raised vegetable beds. I flirt with homegrown lettuce and basil, but those are trifles. Everything I do with those beds, from what I grow and where I grow it is really all about growing tomatoes. Last spring I literally went to an event called "Tomatomania" to buy my seedlings. And I can tell you that this year I produced really outstanding tomatoes.
            But my tomatoes are not as good as my grandpa's or his sister's. So I pilgrim on, always hopeful that each new summer will give me tomatoes like the ones I had growing up. But I wonder if I ever will, and not only because I lack the heightened taste buds of a five year old, but because those first tomatoes were always more than tomatoes. They were my grandpa. They were his sister. And now that they are gone I wonder if, as good as it is, a tomato is just a tomato.

            

9 comments:

Olga Hebert said...

The perfect meal for me is slices of avocado topped with a tomato on multigrain toast, a drizzle of really good olive oil over the tomato and salt and pepper. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

Bellis said...

My stepfather buys tomatoes in the supermarket, and if he tastes a really good one, he saves the seeds and plants them. It works easily and he has the tastiest tomatoes ever. When we arrived in California, we experimented with heritage tomatoes - blue ones, green ones, yellow ones - and concluded that nothing tasted sweeter than cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine.

Ms M said...

Wonderful food story! Food and memories...

The best tomatoes I had were when I was growing up in the Midwest. Large ones, like you described,fragrant and juicy. Perfect with salt & pepper, or topped with a little cottage cheese, or a tiny bit of Italian dressing.

Star said...

Beautiful taste bud memories, similar to mine about fresh corn on the cob + butter + salt + pepper and the accompanying fresh tomatoes + salt + pepper + (sorry, purists!) mayo. Aaaaaaaaaaah.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

What has really got me interested is how many places you've lived. Utah? Northern California? I recall a mention of Montana once too.

Watson said...

I'm drooling, and missing my garden! Thanks for the story Margaret, and feel free to mail, or bring, some tomatoes my way!
Watson's Barbara

Alison said...

I have never been successful at growing tomatoes...it was lovely to stop by again! Xx

Kim Ohanneson/Ms. Go Go said...

Lovely story, Margaret.

I have the same sense-memory with pomegranates.

My sisters and I grew up on a farm in the Central Valley and ate fresh figs, boysenberries, strawberries, corn, pecans and pomegranates into my early teens.

A perfect pomegranate can still reduce us to little girls, sitting in a circle with stained fingers and splattered clothes.

We definitely felt like we were leaving paradise when we moved.

Petrea Burchard said...

This is such a good story, Margaret. You can use it as your food story, too.