On Tomato Picking
04 May, 2012 - Tessa Carter
Tomato picking must have a long and illustrious history. I’m sure many distinguished persons took part in it, from Seneca to Samuel Johnson to Susan B. Anthony—great men and women who went on to change the world.
Or at least such a high-minded thought is heartening when you’re facing an entire greenhouse full of the red baubles alone.
But I like picking tomatoes. I like the pleasant plumpness that softly fills the hand, and I like exploring the jungly vines. I like having my body engaged in meaningful work. And in my solitude I can practice being fully present to my surroundings—to the crickets under the tomato leaves, the geese crossing the sky, the greenhouse heat, my toes in the dirt, the odd orange orbs hiding there and here—and the unfortunate crack of a tomato vine that I’ve just stepped on.
Let the air of monotony have no place in this greenhouse! When you’re not remarking the varieties of tomato contour, or enjoying the satisfaction of filling box after box, your imagination can roam free—to theories of epistemology and entomology, to the cultural ramifications of landing on the moon and the Russian ballet on American culture, to the velocity of an unladen cricket—or you may turn your thoughts toward ripe red tomato slices sprinkled with salt, homemade sauces and salsa, steaming tomato soup, tomato-tossed salad, and succulent BLTs.
You may also turn toward the noble history of tomato picking, this time picturing an Italian peasant amongst the vines with his two black-haired daughters, enumerating the ways a good husband is like a good tomato—firm but mature, neither too hard nor soft; or perhaps a French chef, who makes his sauce from tomatoes plucked ripe from the garden behind his Paris restaurant; or an old Spanish widow filling her baskets with fruit that she will sell in the village square.
My dad’s side of the family are old hands at tomato picking. My great-grandfather made the front page of the local Michigan newspaper for pioneering a method of greenhouse growing that yielded better and earlier tomatoes. My grandfather took over the tomato growing, and now my uncle has received the torch.
Tomatoes are an honored part of our family tradition; the planting and picking and sorting and selling and eating of tomatoes is a crucial part of relational and culinary enrichment. However, a small scandal threatened to break out when a cousin of mine admitted that he really didn’t like tomatoes.
That’s okay, cousin. As long as you like picking them.
It is difficult to hide that you’ve been picking tomatoes. Your hands are brown and green and yellow, your bare feet are filthy, and you may have a few leaves lingering on your clothes. When you wash your hands afterward, you must be fully armed with a bristle brush, grease soap, and—if you really want to eliminate all signs of activity—a rotten tomato. Sometimes you must fight fire with fire, or in this case, tomato with tomato.
I think my family would agree that picking tomatoes is good therapy after eating at a restaurant that serves anemic pink tomatoes shipped from across the country. When my family goes out to eat in the summer at local restaurants, someone usually gets something with a tomato—a burger, a salad, a garnish. And when we see what the tomatoes look like, each knows what the other is thinking:
A friend recently asked me for an inexpensive but classy dinner idea. As we’re both college students, I understood his predicament. So I suggested tomatoes, basil, and melted mozzarella on baguette slices—simple bruschetta. He told me he couldn’t do the tomatoes. You see, he had been to our farm—handled our tomatoes, tasted their sweet flesh—and the grocery tomatoes paled in comparison (literally). I understood: once you have tasted ambrosia and nectar, it is difficult to go back to the fare of mortals.
This reveals both the upside and downside to seasonal eating. On the one hand, you get only the best of the harvest: fruits and vegetables that are bursting with flavor and nutrients—you don’t settle for less-than. On the other hand, what about all those months going without fresh berries, cucumbers, snap peas—not to mention tomatoes?
At long last, the final row is ended, and the remaining tomato boxes are hauled away. After scouring my hands with gritty soap I enter the farmhouse kitchen to assemble some lunch. On the counter is a ripe tomato that I slice onto my plate. As I bite into its lush redness, I experience a delectable revelation.
Life is good. And so is tomato picking.