Carol Ann Sayle
The June-July Tomato Wars are over, the vine and trellis cleanup begins, and I'm almost relieved.
No more tying the vines to trellises and baskets so that they grow in neat 200-foot-long hedges. No more tomato-leaf green, indelibly stained clothes. No more dark olive sticky residue on hands and arms. No more standing on our heads to pick the first big juicy heirlooms, those that are birthed deep in the "belly" of the plant. (They are so large and delicate, with skins so thin and vulnerable, that care, patience, and gymnastic ability are needed to pick them.) No more lugging them in tubs to the farmhouse. Inside, in air-conditioning, the tomatoes must be wiped clean of the leaf anointments, and placed in newspaper-padded plastic stacking crates, which soon make half our house look like a miniature city of "ceiling scrapers." No more checking for rot. Especially that. It's over. Yea! (Of course, the downside is no more tomato sandwiches or salads.)
Tomatoes are the most important fresh crop that any farmer who sells directly to the public grows. They are the favorite crop of home gardeners too. It's as if we all can be well fed if we have success with this one crop, letting all else fall to insects, heat, cold, or whatever. And, it's the one crop that people, especially men, ask for in every season.
At times, on a bitterly cold day, I'd notice the lone man, unburdened by a woman-who-shops, surveying the tables of broccoli, greens, parsnips, leeks and other January crops, and since he didn't look interested in those vegetables, I'd ask, "Are you looking for tomatoes?" It seemed, frankly, a ridiculous thing to be looking for on such a day, but the answer was always, "Yes, do you have any?" "Next June," I'd reply cheerfully.
This love of the tomato is the reason catsup and hot sauces are considered among the top vegetables in the national diet.
Over the 16 years of our on-the-farm market stand, some men have been memorable for the way they enter the stand, glance at all the produce on the tables, and, not seeing tomatoes, quietly ease away, the question answered. Actually for more than half the year, we don't have any, at least in the fresh state.
If it were fall, we might still have tomatoes, either the last of the fresh cherry tomatoes or heirlooms—frozen in their prime—resting in the freezer. The latter would be victims of a rare market day, in June or July, with more tomatoes than customers. I think back to such a day, perhaps a rainy one, when the stand sported vivid piles of yellow, red, green, maroon tomatoes—too many unfortunately, because the fair-weather friends decided instead to go to a grocery store for tasteless tomatoes rather than brave a few sprinkles to secure the most important crop around. And oddly, the next market would be sunny, and our tomato inventory would have no chance to be sufficient, as all the men were here, now! And wanting tomatoes. (The "only reason they came.")
In August, their shocked disappointment is palpable. The big red slicers are gone! Some say, a bit irrationally, "Well, my tomatoes burned up in this heat, but I thought you'd have some!"
Then, the reality check: "Do you know if any other farms have them now?" "Yes," I say, skipping over other local farms who oddly share our weather and seasons. "Farms up north—Wisconsin, Vermont perhaps."
They consider making the road trip. But before they turn on their heels, I point to the bags of Larry's Original Smoke-Dried Tomatoes (made from Roma tomatoes that he grows and then smoke-dries over several weeks in July), or the jars of Fire-Roasted Tomato Sauce and tomato-based Hot Salsa that he made from the tomatoes the men didn't buy on those rainy days. Their countenances lift, and they seem almost happy. Truth is, however, they'll be even happier next June.