My friends call me a tomato fanatic.
I eat tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I throw tomato parties and tomato-themed dinners. I talk tomatoes with perfect strangers at the supermarket. I write stories about tomatoes and compare the finer points of various varieties to men I have dated.
An artistic dabbler, I shoot photographs of tomato still-lifes and paint canvases of tomatoes. I once considered creating a line of tomato-embellished clothing and gave as Christmas gifts garden totes that I emblazoned with photographs of Aunt Ruby, a green beefsteak.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a fake obituary for myself as part of a nursing school assignment: “Pat Sullivan, a food writer best known for her tomato poetry, photographs and paintings, died Thursday in her tomato patch of 100 heirlooms in Baltimore County, leaning on her rake. She was 92.” While some people believe that dying during sex would be the ultimate way to go, I thought — and still think — that dying in a tomato patch would be supreme ecstasy. I figure I could fertilize generations of tomatoes to come.
So how did this lovely fruit take over my life?
As a seed is able to produce 30 pounds of fruit, given the proper growing conditions, so my tomato obsession started out small. In summer, 1970, I had my first backyard garden plot as a young married woman of 22. While my husband toiled at his corporate job and went to law school at night, I began my transformation into Mother Earth. I was a stay-at-home mom — three small children in four years — and although not a hippie, I liked parts of the hippie culture.
Joni Mitchell sang of the need to “get back to the garden.” That sounded like a good idea, and I had the perfect sunny spot in an 80-by-5-foot strip behind my Roland Park duplex. I began to spend Sunday mornings digging while my family went to church services.
At a local garden shop, I bought a few unremarkable tomato varieties — disease-resistant hybrids like Big Boy and Early Girl — and chose varieties of squash, beans, lettuce and corn from the seed packets at my local supermarket.
After a successful first season, I began to study the Burpee seed catalog in mid-winter and to subscribe to Organic Gardening. My younger sister, Rosemary, returned from Wyoming and joined me in my garden planning and execution. We had a date every Sunday to strategize, dig in the dirt and, late in the season, to preserve the bounty of the harvest by canning it in pint-sized Mason jars. She had no garden space, so was happy to share in our communal treasure.
Giddy with our success, the next year, my sister and I not only grew 6-foot-high Silver Queen corn, Blue Lake green beans, peppers, lettuces, eggplants, cucumbers and tomatoes, but peanuts and popcorn (I had to plant the popcorn away from the main crop of corn so it wouldn’t cross-fertilize with the Silver Queen). I liked experimentation and, as an avid cook, I enjoyed the convenience of walking into the back yard and picking my dinner. Tucked among their green leaves, the tomatoes were simply beautiful. The freshness of the vegetables was seductive, but it was the acidic sweetness of a just-picked tomato, even a hybrid, that really caught my attention. Sliced on a plate with slivers of basil, drizzles of olive oil and sprinkles of coarse black pepper or on wheat toast with bacon, lettuce and mayonnaise, the just-picked flavor was orgasmic. I was hooked.
Like ripples in a pond, my interests gradually expanded. After my husband and I divorced and I started nursing school in 1975, every time I moved to a new apartment, I dug up a small plot of earth or planted pots with tomatoes. When I moved to a Waverly rowhouse in 1983, I grew six staked tomato plants in the concrete-bordered dirt. Although yields were small, the fruits were intensely flavored. Against all odds — lack of space, light-fingered neighborhood children — for the next 13 years, my tomato obsession flourished.
Not all were successful harvests, of course. Through experience I learned what kind of perils could beset tomatoes — like horrible black blossom end rot appearing in July on perfectly beautiful reddening fruit. This is the result of overly acidic soil and drenching rains followed by sunny droughts. The tomato crop can be salvaged (after the spoiled fruits are discarded) by adding a little lime and straw mulch around the plants. Two-inch-long slimy slugs could attack tomato and basil seedlings during rainy Mays. (Escargo, a granular product available from Gardens Alive, an eco-friendly catalog company, provides an effective, organic slug-killing remedy.) Tomato plants could be killed by a late frost if planted before Mother’s Day. I sometimes played fast and loose and planted at the end of April.
Nine years ago, I moved to a larger house with bigger sunny beds to grow tomatoes. I dug up the back yard and parking pad with the assistance of my handyman, Slim, and his crew, and created a series of raised beds. Now there was space for about 30 tomato plants. No longer content with garden supply seedlings, I began growing tomato seedlings myself. Again, I weathered a few seasons of trial and error: seedlings that became too leggy from insufficient light, or collapsed from the pressure of watering on their fragile matchstick-thin stalks. Finally, I discovered the importance of south-facing windows for the strongest sun and a watering system in Styrofoam trays, in which the water is wicked up through the plants’ roots. My tomato season has extended now to winter, as the seed catalogs begin arriving around Christmas, providing months of tomato dreaming before planting can begin.
I choose my tomato varieties carefully. In the last five years, the process has become ritualized through a February “tomato choosing dinner” with another tomato-obsessed friend. At this dinner, where we eat tomatoes preserved from the previous summer’s harvest in pasta sauces and chilies, we review notes of germination success. We carefully scrutinize the hundreds of multi-colored choices of tomato varieties in the Tomato Growers Supply Co. catalog, (http://www.tomato growers.com), the bible for the tomato-obsessed. The glossy photographs and descriptions of no less than 264 varieties — red, pink, yellow, orange, black (deep purple) white, green — huge to tiny, early to late, are dizzying. The descriptions read like fairy tales: “The seed of this variety reached America via a Lebanese college student who obtained it from farmers living in the Lebanese hills [Omar’s Lebanese]É” “Folklore says variety named [Mortgage Lifter] by a man who sold this crop to pay off a farm he was about to lose É”
We consult notes from our August tomato dinner, another ritual of the tomato season in which we judge the flavors and colors of the varieties we have grown that summer. Due to the varieties of types and complex flavors, summer tomatoes can be tasted like fine wines, sliced, fanned out on a large platter and garnished only with the simplest of olive oil, kosher salt and basil leaves.
The names of our favorite heirlooms are like old friends — Aunt Ruby (green beefsteak), Aunt Lillian (a beautiful pale lemon yellow with streaks of pink), Andrew Raeheart (juicy red). We pick the seed varieties together, divide them when it is time to plant again in late winter — 15 seeds of each variety to each of us — and plant inside under different conditions. (I now use grow lights, my friend relies on sunlight. My seedlings tend to be stockier.)
Although disease-resistance is always a consideration, heirloom tomato growing has become our new obsession. An heirloom is a plant that’s been handed down for several generations; generally the fruit is sweeter, more colorful and fragile. Although heirlooms have become more available in farmers’ markets and specialty supermarkets in recent years, most supermarket tomatoes sold today are hybrids bred to possess traits that favor growers rather than consumers: for example, tomatoes that ripen all at once so they can be harvested at one time, or tomatoes with thick skins that are less likely to bruise on their way to markets. In breeding for convenience, flavor and color are sacrificed.
Heirloom tomatoes offer an abundance of tomatoes with great flavor and color variations — from red-pink to deep purple, striped yellow and orange, and fully ripened green. The fruits range from the size of marbles to softballs.
Four years ago, a family friend named George invited me to bring my extra seedlings to his farm in the county. Finally my little seedlings have the environment they need to grow and flourish: lots of sun, tons of composted manure from a neighbor’s horse stable, water and lots of space — at least a hoe’s length —between each plant. George was skeptical about the heirlooms at first — “How can a real tomato be anything but red?” he once asked — but he has been slowly seduced by Aunt Lillian, among others, and he allows the heirlooms to be interplanted with 50 of his more disease-resistant hybrids from the local garden center.
On a perfect sunny August afternoon, I have already picked tomatoes at George’s and have driven up the hill to his son Mike’s 100-plant “tomato forest,” where we will pick more then can the luscious fruits in large glass jars for the winter.
Mike sits on a folding chair under a tarp, washing tomatoes then scooping out their cores and soft spots with a sharp-pointed knife. His 1-year-old daughter stands at his knee, chewing on a fist-sized red paste tomato. Smoke rises from two charcoal grills crammed with sizzling tomatoes; their flavor concentrated by the heat as their skins fall away. Heads of roasted garlic the size of doorknobs sit next to a pile of licorice-scented green basil leaves on a long picnic table that will be used in the canning process. A large black metal canning pot heats water on a freestanding propane-fired single-burner stove.
Glancing across the field at Mike and his daughter from the midst of the tomato jungle on this breezy, sunny summer day, I can’t stop thinking of my 30-year-old tomato obituary. The day is such a perfect one. I hope God won’t look down from heaven and take me early. I am, after all, in the midst of a tomato patch, leaning on my rake.
Pat Sullivan grows, cooks and eats tomatoes at her home in Roland Park.