Kim Reeder’s essays have appeared in skirt! magazine and the ShriverReport.org. She lives in Kentucky with her daughter and authors the blog ALifeRevised.com.
Our senses have the power to place us in the past. For me, the smell of wax paper will always take me to a picnic with my mother when I was four years old. The senses may also frame our experience of a particular season or holiday. The smell of cinnamon at Christmas. The sight, smell and sound of explosions and acrid smoke from neighborhood fireworks on the Fourth of July.
When it comes to experiencing summer, my senses converge on tomatoes, a vegetable (well, fruit) which exempli es the taste, sight and smell of our warmest season. Tomatoes absorb a mixture of summer’s hot sun and plentiful water and, in the best years, create a matchless balance of sugar and acid on the tongue. For the eyes, a peek-a-boo of red, orange or yellow amidst rich vegetation alerts us to the presence of a ripe tomato, a welcome surprise reminiscent of finding forgotten cash in an old dress pocket. Not forgetting the olfactory sense, if summer’s lush green could be perceived by the nose, it would most certainly smell like a tomato vine.
Perhaps obviously, my feelings about tomatoes approach an affair of the heart. If I were a castaway on an island in the Paci c Ocean and could take one food with me, it would be tomatoes. And, not surprisingly, my fondness extends only to tomatoes grown by me, my friends/family or a local farmer– pale tomatoes traveling across the country in cardboard cartons need not apply.
Once I flip the calendar to May, my daughter counts down the days until the last day of school and I count down the days until I am able to eat my first tomato of the season. Regardless of the date, that day is my first day of summer.
My affection originated in the summers of my childhood. My parents grew, harvested and preserved tomatoes with great devotion. Many summer evenings found them walking through rows of tomato plants and filling five-gallon buckets until they over owed with red and orange orbs. If additional time was needed for ripening, the tomatoes would be placed on a makeshift table constructed from plywood and sawhorses. On one of these evenings, just as the fireflies had started to flicker in our backyard, I noticed my father emerge from our house carrying a salt shaker towards the table of tomatoes. He surveyed its display and selected a ripe Early Girl tomato. Sprinkling it with salt, he bit into the flesh. He continued sprinkling and biting until the tomato’s juices ran down his arm and dripped from his elbow. I can’t recall seeing him more content.
My tomato love affair continued into my adulthood where it made appearances in actual love affairs, always happy to play second fiddle. There were shared caprese salads. Or, the sound of clinking glasses of crisp white wine enjoyed with skewers of grilled chicken and cherry tomatoes. Two memories, however, stand out. The men in these memories had special qualities that resembled the specimen of tomatoes they bring to mind.
The first man searched for the perfect bacon and tomatoes at a June farmer’s market, finally settling for choices that didn’t quite meet his high standards. He struggled to understand that perfection can’t be attained in summer, or likely at all. There are too many mosquitoes. Too much sweat soaking through cotton tees. Too many sunburned shoulders.
If I likened him to a type of tomato, he would be a San Marzano, most often grown in Italy and the only tomato that can be used for Pizza Napoletana. As with him, this varietal is colorful and able to withstand the heat of processing, but with a bittersweet flavor and uncompromising structure. Some chefs call the San Marzano the best tomato of its kind; however, I doubt many would claim that it is tender enough to savor sliced with a simple dash of salt.
My strongest nostalgia pools around a man who was an improbable concoction of sweetness and substance enclosed within a thick exterior, perhaps akin to a beefsteak varietal in the tomato world. He added American cheese to the BLTs we made with tomatoes from his garden. Who could have imagined a slice of cheese could melt itself around my heart so completely?
He was the poster child for all things summer, with the wholesomeness and ease of freshly-mowed lawns, baseball and blackberry cobbler at a church picnic. Vibrant potential embodied in green foliage and unripe fruit so heavy that the vines bent under its weight. Potential, however, is delicate. Harsh conditions such as too much rain, too little sun or aphids can cause blossoming plants to wither long before they have borne ripe fruit. In the wake of their withering, I mourned the brown leaves but understood the necessity of yielding to nature’s will. Even the most beautiful summer days must come to an end.
Yet, all was not lost. I took comfort in the knowledge that the cycles of the universe would follow their usual pattern. As they always do, fall colors and twinkling holiday lights would give way to red-breasted robins and patchworks of daffodils. Then, one fine morning, I would reach the breathless realization that red tomatoes had started to cluster on backyard vines and in crowded farmer’s market bins. My first day of summer was arriving once again and love would rise anew.