Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of a Tomato Hater

I grew up in a tomato town.

At the north end of California's irrigated agricultural wonderland, the Central Valley, we grew a lot of tomatoes. Fields of them ringed the town. Cropdusters buzzed low keeping them pest and disease free. Trucks of them drove in to town, to the local cannery and processing factory.

Every summer, tomatoes, spilled off the top of overloaded trucks, lay rotting in the gutters all through the July and August heat.

When someone says "the smell of boiling tomatoes" to you, it may conjure up the image of a nice tomato sauce or soup, simmering away on the stove. To me it conjures up months of steamy emissions from the plant, drifting in to town, an indecisive miasma, unsure if it was sweet or savory.

Sometimes, when money for our family was tight, my mom would take seasonal work at the factory, working on the line and later at their paste processing facility. She came home redolent of tomatoes, the smell impregnated into her clothing.

So perhaps I have a love/hate relationship with the tomato. It, after all, brought in a non-trivial part of my family's income through some tough years. My grandmother was a bookkeeper at the plant, and my grandfather flew some of those cropdusters for many years until he wrecked and was relegated to golfing and reading about the Civil War.

Out in my own garden, while we try our best to raise a decent crop, I'll rail against their overly-hybridized fussiness. I'll complain about their sprawling untidiness. I'll jump on any excuse to get these unnatural things, never meant for the maritime northwest, out of the garden.

But I must be honest with myself and acknowledge a couple of things about the tomato. First off, it is all those things - hybridized to the point of absurdity and totally ill suited for where we grow it. But these very characteristics are the source of the challenge, a sort of backyard agronomic "because it is there" factor, that forces all of us gardeners west of the Rain Shadow to test their mettle against this thing.

Because if you can grow it, get your crops to ripen up into something more than pickled, fried, or salsafied green tomatoes, then you have truly shown what you are worth.

You are a gardener, you have not shirked from the greatest of challenges but embraced them. And you have come away the champion.

And after a few years of perseverance (or of head-into-wall-beating, if you prefer) a good crop will come up. Tomatoes are a heartbreak crop, in the words of my brother in law - they reward you just on the edge of abandonment, dole out a good harvest to keep you going. Those good crops, when they happen, are so good and so worth it. Romas, big slicers, cherries and grapes, crazy heirlooms in all variety of colors from tacky lipstick pink to the deepest of purples. The thousand and one flavors, not the giant soggy slicers of supermarket burger filling fame.

So remind me of this, next time I'm standing ankle deep in rotting tomato flesh, pulling fungus dappled vines out of the ground, raising my fist at the sky and reliving every tomato-stinking summer of my youth. Remind me that sometimes they do work out and when it happens, the rewards are rich!

Footnote: while researching this post and looking for photos, I found out that the factory in question was demolished. I knew it had closed, and good riddance at this point, but as much as my memories of it are of bad smells, night-shift-working-mom, and traffic snarling trucks, a part of my youth is now gone.

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