Ode to the Tomato

A hungry writer waxes philosophical about his love for summer’s Goliath of the garden.

Parker Benbow

I am watching the 1978 B-movie spoof “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” again. It’s a late-May, early-June tradition of mine, this movie. I watch it when the months-long purgatory of anemic, winter tomatoes harder than baseballs nears end, when the ripe, fist-sized tomatoes of summer loom invitingly on the produce horizon, when I need comedic relief from my fresh-tomato longing.

How do I love thee, tomatoes of summer? Let me count the ways. One. Two. Three. Four. And done.

“Only four?” you say.

Yes. Because there are only four ways I know of that won’t adulterate the tomato’s natural flavor: sliced plain, sliced between mayo-slathered slices of bread, sliced atop buttered toast as an opened-faced sandwich and whole, like you’d eat an apple.

For Way No. 4, I hunch over the sink and have at it, juices slipping sloppily off my chin, hands, forearms and elbows. Not with guests in the house, though. Such tomato-eating displays can shock those with genteel table manners.

The hands-down, hands-on best tomatoes are the ones so large that a single slice overlaps all four sides of a piece of bread. These are the locally grown ones. The richest-flavored ones. The reddest, prettiest ones. The greatest of the great, their late June-early July arrival heralds the start of the mid-to-late summer Virginia Tomato Gorging Festival (it’s unofficial), when the tomato-eating desires of Virginians like me, held in frustrated check since the last of the picked-over, sorry-excuse tomatoes of nine months before, are unleashed.

It’s “Attack of the Eatable Tomatoes.”

We meet the beloved foe mouth-on.

We eat tomatoes at breakfast. We eat them at lunch. We eat them at dinner. We snack on them mid-morning and mid-afternoon. We eat tomatoes so often our gums and inner cheeks bathe in near-constant acidity, one mouth ulcer following another. But does this stop us? No! We masticate resolutely on in the knowledge this local, fresh bounty cannot last, that each day we’re closer to the dreaded day when there will no longer be any fresh, local tomatoes available, and until then we must make sure we eat more than our fair share.

When local tomatoes are in season, I shop early and often. Would I make a run to the vegetable stand just for tomatoes? Of course. Do I feel conflicted over which of two semifinalists gets the final-pick nod? Every visit. Do I often eye the woman ahead of me, and worry that she might choose the one incomparable example of tomato perfection and deny me? Only natural. I could fight over such a tomato. I could. And by hook or by crook—e.g., a “Lady! Your car’s on fire!” diversion and then the old paper-bag switcheroo. I’d win, too.

On Saturdays, my wife and I go to a farmers market up the street from our home. I like looking those farmers in the eye and saying, “You grow these tomatoes yourself?” I tried that once, anyway. Imagine a plainspoken guy in bib overalls with an impatient look on his suntanned face. So I switched to a more congenial query along the lines of, “Your tomatoes sure do look good!” I’ll do whatever it takes when you have fresh tomatoes and I want them.

I saw a piece of news the other day that alarmed me. It was about how scientists had cracked the tomato genome, the promise being tastier tomatoes to come. So I did what any tomato activist would do: I called the State Department of Agriculture for reassurance.

Director of Communications Elaine Lidholm told me the practice of manipulating genetics in livestock and vegetables without harm dated back to biblical times. (I felt the urge to remind her that tomatoes were a fruit, but bit my tongue and had to stay quiet during the intense pain.) Meanwhile, Elaine told me a lot about tomatoes. She let it slip that there was a time not long ago when the quest for a tomato with a longer shelf life had resulted in less-flavorful tomatoes. Some of those genetic wonders have lasted years. Age doesn’t improve their flavor. I didn’t tell her what I was thinking as she explained this because she is a nice woman, and I didn’t want to frighten her, but if such dastardly manipulation occurred again, some of us might have to become tomato anarchists.

For now, I’m a peaceful glutton-in-waiting. The first tomatoes from down South arrive this weekend, our market’s e-newsletter says. As I read, I start to salivate uncontrollably and bolt to the kitchen to check the butter/mayo/bread/sea salt situation. All is in readiness: House Tisdale is prepared.

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