By Amy McCollom
Do you like tomatoes? If you didn’t like tomatoes in my family when we were little, then you were out of luck because in the summertime that is pretty much all we ate. Every meal had tomatoes. My dad loved his tomatoes and as far as I’m concerned, was the tomato king. He grew the reddest, juiciest, most flavorful tomatoes I have ever tasted. But of course, everything tastes better when you are a hungry kid on a hot summer day.
I remember those noon-time bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise, a slice of cheese, and a thick red tomato slice. The juice would soak through our paper plate, but there wasn’t room for seconds anyway, as if that was something people did back then. Sometimes I would skip the bologna altogether and just opt for the tomato, a little salt, and that’s it. There is nothing like a homegrown tomato.
For supper, there was always a big ole plate of sliced tomatoes on the table. I liked putting a spoon of cottage cheese on top of mine, with plenty of salt and pepper. My dad would sometimes fry up a tall platter of fried green tomatoes before the red ones came on. They were a little greasy, but mighty tasty. Of course, that was back when everybody used Crisco, and the vegetable oil alternatives hadn’t come out yet.
Mid-summer we lived on more of our garden bounty. Sweet corn, zucchini, cucumber, radishes, and lots of green beans. Saturday mornings weren’t spent sitting around much. I remember squatting down, picking green beans, pulling radishes, or pushing through the bushy fuzzy branches of tomato plants to pluck the good ones. You couldn’t be a sissy girl and do garden work. There were bugs, and worms, and grasshoppers, and itchy things that would fly off before they could be identified. You couldn’t wear pretty little flip flops with sparkly painted toenails in garden mud. But you could learn a lot about nature, find baby toads in early morning puddles of dew, pick up huge colorful “extra-terrestrial” tomato worms and examine them.
Picking the green beans wasn’t enough. The job was not done until the beans were snapped, sorted, cleaned, and ready to cook. That was supper for that evening with chunks of potatoes and a couple stips of bacon. That is why I know how to cook now. I started when I was a kid preparing things to be cooked.
Summer afternoons were for reading books like My Side Of The Mountain, or Lassie Come Home in my favorite tree in the backyard. No one would bother me up there, and no one bothered to look up when trying to find me.
Our backyard garden wasn’t huge, but it helped us keep food on the table in the 1970’s. Then one summer my dad came home with great news! The company he worked for as a telephone man, GTE, was in some way helping set up the new microwave tower on Route 45, West of town, and the land surrounding it would be available to the employees for gardens that summer. You would have thought we had won the lottery. My folks were all excited, so of course us kids got excited as well.
Our first trip out to the tower was pretty fun. I don’t know what it is about kids and wide open spaces, but it brings out the crazy in them. Seriously, you turn a child loose in an empty room, a gymnasium, a field, a park, anywhere there are no obstructions and they run and leap like wild horses. I remember jumping out of the back of the pick up truck and just running around all over the place. It looked like there was miles of soft green grass and I was jubilant! There were about 12 other families out there and all of their kids were doing the same.
Plots of ground were measured and sectioned off with stakes and string. Tillers and tools were brought out and families worked together to turn dark, rich soil into a fertile field of plenty. Bi-weekly and weekend trips to the tower were fun, sometimes a chore, but always a time to learn something new. There was usually another “GTE farmer” there most anytime we went, and it made the work more enjoyable when there were others to talk to.
We had a huge bounty of vegetables that summer and I remember enjoying the corn, beans, tomato juice, and other vegetables all year long thanks to our deep freeze. It felt really, really good to be able to grow our own food, and have enough to share with others who couldn’t.
When I grew up, and would go visit my folks in the summer, my dad would always ask me if I “needed” any tomatoes. Not if I wanted any, because his philosophy was that tomatoes were delicious, and everybody wants tomatoes, and if you don’t have any, then you need some. He always had plenty, some in the window sill turning, and some on the counter ready to eat. Everyone needs tomatoes, he would say. I agree with you, Dad.
I think today I’m going to make a mess of green beans and potatoes with bacon, and slice me up some thick slices of these bright red tomatoes that I plucked out of my garden, and I’m going to sit on my porch and eat them to my heart’s content. And if you happen to need a tomato, you stop on by, cause I have a couple in the window sill about to turn, and some on my counter too that you can have. Ah, summertime. Some things you never outgrow, or forget.