A Plate of Tomatoes

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

There’s a plate of tomatoes on my kitchen counter, and I’m amazed at the memories that are surfacing as I look at it. I really shouldn’t be too surprised: so many of my memories are tied to food—and I really love a good tomato.

Fat, juicy, locally-grown tomatoes were a summertime staple in our kitchen when I was growing up. My dad made frequent Saturday treks to Zern’s Farmer’s Market to buy them. He’d bring home green ones as soon as they hit the stands, and he’d fry them up for dinner, with rice and white gravy with pan drippings. This meal was his specialty, and though he often made big weekend breakfasts, this was the only dinnertime meal I can remember him making. I think our family enjoyed those fried green tomatoes just as much as the ripe ones that would begin to appear a few weeks later. When I was young, my favorite way to eat the red ones was in a sandwich. I have fond memories of summer lunches of thick, deep red tomato slices on Stroehmann’s squishy white bread, with mayo and salt and pepper.

When our family went to the Jersey shore for vacation, my dad was always enthused about the prospect of buying Jersey tomatoes—to eat while we were there and to bring plenty home with us. Apparently there’s magic in New Jersey’s soil, because tomatoes from the Garden State are widely recognized as being some of the best produced anywhere.

When I met my husband, Bill, and began getting to know his family, I gained a whole new appreciation for tomatoes (and a new way to say the word—because here in South Philly, where Bill grew up, they’re often called “tuhmayduz.”). Since we’re only a few miles from New Jersey, their namesake tomatoes are readily available here, and when they were in season, Bill’s parents wouldn’t settle for anything less. Those amazing tomatoes showed up in sandwiches on fresh Italian rolls with salami and cheese, and also appeared as the star of a salad my mother-in-law often served during tomato season: diced and paired with sweet onion, fresh basil leaves, and olive oil.

When Bill’s Air Force career took our family to Oklahoma, we figured we’d be stuck with the pathetic, flavorless, pink-on-the-inside, imposter tomatoes available at the grocery store. Little did we know that there are places in nearby Texas that have tomato-growing conditions rivalling those of New Jersey. We were happy to discover (though reluctant to admit) that a tomato grown in the right area of Texas is every bit as good as a Jersey. So although there were plenty of other foods we missed from the East Coast while we lived in the center of the country, tomatoes weren’t among them.

Bill’s next duty station was Alaska. We arrived there in January, and on my first trip to the base commissary, I was shocked to find that tomatoes cost more per pound than some cuts of steak! And they were still expensive in the summertime, because the soil there stays too cool for a tomato plant’s liking. I was warned by my neighbor not to try growing tomatoes, but during our second summer there, I just couldn’t resist. I bought tomato plants (they do sell them there because many Alaskans have greenhouses), re-potted them into dark-colored containers to help absorb heat from the sun, and surrounded them with water-filled solar collector bags. I placed them in the sunniest spot in our yard, but the soil still didn’t get warm enough. I ended up with beautiful big plants—and tiny rock-hard tomatoes which emerged just in time for the first snowfall. I tried to get them to finish growing and ripening in our warm garage, but it just wasn’t to be. I threw those plants away and gritted my teeth when my neighbor said, “I told you so.” Fortunately, our family fully enjoyed the foods that do grow well in Alaska (especially the wild-caught salmon and the best carrots anywhere!), and that balanced out the disappointment of settling for canned tomatoes during the years we lived there.

Bill and I have been back on the East Coast for 9 years now. You’d think I’d have gotten used to the availability of great tomatoes—but I haven’t.

I still get a thrill when I see the first Jerseys show up at the produce market, and I always buy way too many. But that’s never a problem, because there are so many great ways to enjoy them.

That big plateful on my counter is beckoning to me . . . silently asking what their delicious fate will be.

Maybe a batch of Gazpacho,

Or a big bowlful of tomato salad,

Or homemade salsa,

Or perhaps I’ll go childhood retro, buy a loaf of Stroehmann’s bread, and make a nostalgia sandwich.  

We’ll see.   

Photo by Alexanderwragge0 via Pixabay

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