Tomatoes: A Long-Avoided Appreciation

Tomatoes are a central paradox in life: mine, at least.

When I was 10, Big Macs were superior to Whoppers, in my smallish mind, because Big Macs were undefiled by tomatoes.

I did not like to eat tomatoes. When they weren't fresh, which was most of the time, they were slimy and tasteless. When they were fresh, they were so bitter they almost stung.

At Long's lunch counter, I used to order BLT's, hold the T. Just a bacon and lettuce sandwich was what I wanted. I was a rare kid who shunned ketchup. I particularly hated tomato soup, that goo one was obliged to eat when sick. I still wince at all the stuff I was required to eat out of Chef Boy-ar-Dee cans. I felt sorry for all those Italian kids who had to eat Spaghetti-Os. When I was a kid, my aversion to anything colored red was irrational and legendary.

Somehow, though, by the time I was 10, I loved tomatoes. I didn't like eating them. I liked growing them. I started out just helping in my parents' small tomato patch, but they later gave me a big section of the yard to work with. At the height of it, I had about 25 plants, each staked separately, decently spaced from the others.

It wasn't just because the larger a tomato patch I tilled, the less grass I had to mow, though that was what I used to say to make grownups chortle. Taken altogether, tomatoes were a lot more trouble than grass. But on a summer morning, before breakfast, before even shoes, I'd pull on some shorts and maybe a shirt and run out and have a look at my tomatoes: pull the infant weeds, pluck off the suckers, check for cutworms, tie up any errant branches with little strips of cotton cloth, and pick any that were ripe. And water them, of course, a slow drizzle from the hose at each plant until the ground around it was moist.

There was something satisfying about how they looked, and how fast they grew, like the beanstalk in the story, and how bright green the leaves were, in the bright summer sunlight, a slightly more vivid shade from anything else in the back yard. And I came to love the way the leaves smelled, which was nothing at all like tomato sauce or ketchup, but a fresh, strident smell. Like a salty ocean breeze and pool-water chlorine, it was one of the essential smells of summer. After messing with them, my hands would smell like that for hours.

The tomatoes themselves were almost secondary, garish compared to the plant itself, but I admired how they ripened, taking on that red glow you don't see anywhere else, and how they got actually perfect; and when they were, they were easy to pluck with just a 15-degree twist, suddenly heavy in my hand.

I'd put them in a basket, and walk up and down the street, and sell them to neighbors, who seemed more genuinely pleased than they did when I'd try to sell them newspapers. Sometimes I'd make as much as $20, which back then was serious money, about a dozen Hardy Boys' books.

There were summers when I would grow 100 perfect tomatoes and not taste a single one.

***

Over the years, I got interested in the weird history of tomatoes. It's one of those subjects that the more you learn about it, the more it pulls the rug out from under your perceptions of reality as you've come to know it. Tomatoes are so omnipresent in world cuisines that it's hard to imagine many cultures without them. Especially the cuisine of Spain, home of gazpacho, or of Italy, home of marinara sauce. They're central to Moroccan cuisine, and make appearances in several Thai and Indian dishes.

But tomatoes are South American in origin. They didn't appear in Europe, Africa, or Asia until after Columbus. Lots of Italians—Lorenzo de Medici, Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli—they probably all died without ever having tasted tomatoes, or tomato sauce.

And in early American cultures, including Appalachia, tomatoes were considered poisonous. Some tomatoes went overseas, as far as Siberia, and were bred into new varieties before they returned to grow in the backyards of American grandmothers.

***

Some of my childhood aversion still clings. Though I barbecue a lot, I don't ever use tomato-based barbecue sauce. To this day, when I have a plate of French fries or onion rings in front of me, I ask for the mustard.

But as a middle-aged adult, I've come to cherish tomatoes as one of the primary reasons to fear death. Not just any sort of tomatoes, of course, but fresh summer tomatoes.

My conversion came partly thanks to the mystique of the heirloom, those variations on the concept that started sneaking in around the edges back in the 1990s, and that are so different from what most of us know at the supermarket that maybe they should be called something else entirely.

They're wonderful, whatever we call them. Every year seems to bring new ones I've never heard of, but my perennial favorite is the Cherokee Purple. I first encountered it on Market Square eight or nine years ago. It's the one I daydream about during the nine or 10 months it's not available. It has a rich, complex, savory flavor that may make you forget about meat altogether. It was my favorite even before I heard the story that it originated from ancient native-American seeds discovered just about 25 miles southeast of Market Square, in Sevier County.

It's not a color you would choose to paint a tomato. It looks like something you mixed in fourth-grade art class, hoping for some other hue altogether. Or worse, maybe the color of the stuff that leaks out of garbage cans after the Rossini Festival. But this is no beauty pageant. Several heirloom varieties don't look quite ripe. My theory is that the uglier a tomato is, the more delicious it is.

Others abide in Cherokee Purple's general realm of savory deliciousness: Black Cherry, Black Krim, and one I bought on Market Square last week, the Paul Robeson. It's actually a Russian import, named after Russia's favorite African-American communist pop star. And there are some older basics, like the Brandywine, and the Mortgage Lifter. Every tomato tells a story.

***

As I've softened about the practice of actually eating tomatoes, I've learned to make marinara sauce. Some years ago I got in the habit of throwing some chopped tomatoes on a pizza as I slide it in the oven, even if there's already tomato sauce on the thing, and always call it an improvement.

However, to a really fine tomato, the sort you can just get at the farmers' markets, and just this time of year, cooking of any sort is a form of abuse.

They're okay in a tossed salad, though frankly I think they're wasted there, too, especially if there's much dressing involved. An excellent summer tomato should be raw, in the middle of the plate, the center of attention, perhaps even the main course. A little antipasto-style sliced tomatoes, with a bit of olive oil and some basil and a razor-thin slice of hard Parmesan cheese or an anchovy, is a fine thing.

But I'm not sure any of it's superior to the tomato sandwich. It doesn't take much. I use some whole-wheat bread, some mayonnaise, not too much, and a layer, maybe a double-layer, of thick-sliced tomatoes. If I have a wild hair, I may include some thin slices of onion, or about an eighth of a pinch of salt. If you're feeling really crazy, mix a few different varieties of tomato together in the same sandwich, pink and purple, sweet and savory. Every tomato sandwich you make can taste slightly different from every one you've ever had.

I have been known to sit and eat three sandwiches like that, and call it a meal. If there's any protein in it, it comes from the mayonnaise, or maybe from the seeds in the whole-wheat bread, but for a summer supper, a tomato sandwich allows no room for regrets.

***

Today I grow tomatoes in the back yard with mixed success. The last time I tried, they all grew crazy tall and yielded fruit only the week I went to the beach. The lady who was feeding our dogs told me how great they were.

Over the years, I've gotten better at some things, but worse at that. I envy my juvenile alter-ego. He was the superior tomato farmer. My tomatoes got much more attention in the days when I had nothing to do all day but to pull on some shorts and run out to the tomato patch.

Some years, I just grow them to look at the plants and smell the leaves. Even when rot or birds or bugs get to the fruit before I do, the leaves always smell like summer.