In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I am not a gardener. Gardeners, in my estimation, are people who can coax something out of nothing, who are able to make even the most inhospitable soil, the roughest conditions, yield something beautiful and delicious. It is pure alchemy, a magic for which I have the utmost respect and little skill. When it comes to my own postage stamp of a plot, which I only tend during the summer months, I play it safe. Peppers, basil, zucchini: you are practically guaranteed a hefty haul with very little work. In the kitchen there are certain things that, by investing just a little work, you see huge dividends (homemade pie crusts and fresh pasta, for example, aren’t that much work, but exponentially better than the store-bought alternative), which is why I love growing tomatoes. Supermarket specimens, especially out of season, can be anemic, mealy and tasteless. But with a small patch of land or even a large patio pot you can grow a lovely vine that produces for a number of months, which is so worth the effort come August: there is nothing quite like slicing into a juicy, vine-ripened tomato, picked moments ago, its taut skin still warm from the sun.
Tomatoes are going gangbusters right now, and for the past few weeks we’ve been enjoying the fruits of our labors – or lack thereof. I can’t think of a meal we’ve eaten that hasn’t involved a tomato from our garden. The Romas have been reduced to sweet tomato sauce and diced into summer minestrone. The heirloom variety has been sliced onto BLTs, which we eat every Saturday for lunch this time of year, sandwiched between crisp bacon, crunchy lettuce, and mayonnaise-slathered wheat bread. We’ve layered thick slabs between rounds of silky mozzarella, and then capped it with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a casual Caprese salad. Thin slices have dressed up grilled cheese sandwiches. We’ve even eaten them straight off the cutting board.
Abra, as it turns out, loves cherry tomatoes (not much of a vegetable-lover, I was delighted to see her enjoying them so much until I realized that they are, in fact, a fruit). Every evening, while I am working to get dinner on the table, Maikael takes her around back for her daily haul. She has quickly learned that the green ones aren’t yet ripe, but she’s happy to furtively pluck a tomato that’s just barely turned orange. Maneuvering her way around the cages, she darts a tiny hand toward the center of the vine to reach the ones we have trouble getting at, then immediately palms the tomato into her mouth. She eats with reckless abandon, open-mouthed, a spray of red juice and tiny yellow seeds staining her chin, her shirt, and anything within a six-inch radius. Needless to say, I haven’t enjoyed a single cherry tomato all summer, but I have soenjoyed seeing Abra delighting in our modest efforts at growing our own food.
So much of family life is built on these kinds of small rituals: the Saturday BLTs, the evening romp in the garden. My dad recently sent me a photo from a little road trip he took back to the area where my parents and I lived until I was five-years-old. One of the photos pictured a railroad crossing, and although I didn’t recognize the specific place I intuitively knew it was where my dad had taken me when I was not much older than Abra to watch the trains speed by on summer evenings while my mother prepared our dinner. Later, on the phone, my dad mentioned that, near the crossing, grew the biggest blackberries he’d ever laid eyes on, which we would pick and enjoy right there alongside the tracks. It was clear to me how much this memory meant to him, this small slice of life that had wedged itself firmly into his consciousness, and I imagine that, someday, the mere sight of a cherry tomato will send me reeling back in time in much the same way.