Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gardening: All about tomatoes

"Hunger makes you restless. You dream about food - not just any food, but perfect food, the best food, magical meals, famous and awe-inspiring, the one piece of meat, the exact taste of buttery corn, tomatoes so ripe they split and sweeten the air, beans so crisp they snap between the teeth, gravy like mother’s milk singing to your bloodstream." - Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
The house I lived in until I was eight years old had a wonderful backyard with enormous old trees, an old fashioned metal swing set, lush and puffy azalea bushes and a row of tomato plants. My mom, though she grew up in an almost-urban suburb of Washington DC, was the daughter of a man who was born and raised on a farm in Manassas, Virginia. My grandfather's life on the farm infused his approach to cultivating food. He kept an enormous garden on the one acre plot of land my mother grew up on in Alexandria, Virginia, full of just about every vegetable you could imagine. This may have also been a generous gift intended for his mother-in-law, my great-grandmother who immigrated from France, who felt that American produce was absolutely vile. Nevertheless, my mother grew up enjoying fresh off the farm produce, and she made that happen for me through tomatoes.

When summer came around and it was time to enjoy the tomatoes, my mom would send me outside to check on their progress. The smell of tomato plants and leaves is so absolutely wonderful to me...the verdant scrumptiousness is something I crave when Spring turns into Summer. You can find me at farmer's markets smelling the air around me, or grasping huge bundles of tomatoes and bringing them slowly to my nose to inhale their scent. From what I recall, I was fond of picking ripe tomatoes off the vine and eating them as though they were apples, with the juices and seeds dripping down my chin onto my clothes. I detest being messy, but I'm sure I made an exception. When my grandparents moved to the Tidewater region of Virginia, my grandfather set up a small and manageable garden to tend to, and two major features were tomatoes and corn ("knee high by the 4th of juuuu-ly" I can remember him saying). Tomatoes are part of the fabric of my heritage.

The first thing I plant in a garden of my own will be the tomato plant. I recall very little about what seeds to choose, or where to plant them, and what kind of sunlight they need. I just know that I need to plant them. Fortunately. SippitySup has put together a three part series with the man behind Tomatomania, Scott Daigre. Tomatomania is the "world's largest tomato seedling sale" and Daigre is a tomato growing expert (and heck of a good cook, apparently). In this three part series, Daigre examines the in-and-outs of tomato growing, including what tomatoes are best for you and all of the factors one must consider to harvest particularly delicious tomatoes.

Daigre provides a thorough introduction to soil prep, seed choice, and maintenance. He also dispells various myths about hybrid tomatoes, which I greatly appreciate. Some people dismiss hybrid tomatoes as "pretty but tasteless"...and in my experience that's not the case. I only recently meandered into the land of the heirloom tomato, and I was VERY pleasantly surprised. So delicious and so absolutely incredibly beautiful.

My favorite way to eat tomatoes (as an adult) is to slice them into wedges, sprinkle them lightly with a rich, thick balsamic vinegar and shake on a little salt and pepper. Em, my very Italian partner, was not terribly fond of tomatoes uncooked when we first started dating. But through my powers of persuasion, you can find us most summer nights with a bowl of tomatoes right under our chins and the sweet, nose-tingling scent of balsamic in the air.

Tomatomania's SippitySup posts numbers one, two and three.

Tomato garden photo courtesy: freddyfoyle@flickr

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