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Why Tomatoes Make Smelly Houseguests

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Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

Every day I go on a sniffing expedition. This duty would have been difficult over the winter, as I had weird allergies for five months, and during that time, I smelled nothing.

On a chilly morning at the farm stand, my cousin Claire, who is "head cashier," informed me that there was a dead-animal smell over by the bamboo, near the lavender sellers. The lavender farmers are part of our extended family and they are generally tolerant of our farm's idiosyncrasies, but who would tolerate a stench such as the stench reported by Claire?

I dutifully walked over and sat down besides the lavender lady, Gail, who is additionally my "wife-in-law," being married to my first husband, the father of my children. We chatted for ten minutes or so, as the farm stand was in the winding-down phase. I'd forgotten why I'd gone over there, but when I got back to the cashier table, Claire asked if I knew what the horrible odor was. "Odor?" I asked quizzically. I hadn't smelled a thing.

Like any houseguest, the tomatoes "break down" after a few days. Not that they get drunk and insult us or break the plumbing--no, these guests start leaking.

That was winter, and after some rain, my sense of smell returned in May, to my great delight. I'd missed the first blooms of roses, lemon blossoms, and even the intoxicating scents of datura and sweet peas. But those are pleasure scents. My sniffing routine now is serious business and I'm sniffing for the ickies, the decaying, the soon-to-be corpses.

We store our valuable heirloom tomatoes, and even Early Girl and cherry tomatoes in the guest room of our farm house. The tomatoes are placed single-layer in plastic crates cushioned by newspapers and cloths. The crates are then stacked in towers on the floor and on top of the twin beds. The air conditioning is on day and night to keep them cool and dry. (I enjoy that environment too.)

But like any houseguest, the tomatoes kind of "break down" after a few days. Not that they get drunk and insult us, eat everything in sight, break the plumbing, or allow their stuff to occupy every surface--no, these guests start leaking.

There are thousands of them in the room, and to inspect each one individually, to see if it's a leaker, I'd have to unstack and restack the towers. It would be wasted effort if all are behaving. So I just sniff.

The smell of a tomato gone bad is undeniable...and usually I can pinpoint the approximate stack in which sleeps the culprit, which is oozing its juice onto the paper, upon which also sleep the adjoining guests. The acid in the goo destroys the skin of the perfectly well-behaved guests and they, too, start leaking. You can lose a lot of guests in short order if you're not "on it." On the sniffing patrol I mean.

The good news however, other than that my sniffer has regained its expertise, is that these guests spend only a few days in the guest room between market days. Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the non-leakers will be in the spotlight on our market tables. They'll go home with our friends and then any abhorrent behavior is up to them. I'd sigh in relief, but I know that the very next day, more guests will come out of the field and take up residence in the guest room. This goes on until the heat and/or plagues kills all the plants and we're out of tomatoes until the next year. Then, I sigh in relief and my nose can return to enjoying rose blossoms...only roses, as the other delectable scents are long-gone.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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