Making Hay

Week of September 13th, 2009 | The weather was warm, sunny & dry.

A Tomato to Remember

by Sarah Holm

Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes

I remember the first time I ate a tomato.

Oh, I had had tomatoes before, if you could call them that. Those pale pink slices you get in your $1 fast food hamburger. I had eaten a few of those. But always with my eyes shut tight, the gorge rising in my throat as my taste buds screamed in protest over eating this awful, slimy, cold, foul tasting thing. I only ate a few. Soon I began inventing all sorts of ingenious ways for them to disappear. They all ended up rolled in a napkin, and thrown in the trash.

Even when Mom made me eat a tomato from the garden I didn't like it. It was our first year on the farm, and she had started a garden. She had bought these 'Big Boy' beefsteak seedlings from the parking lot at a major store. I remember her cutting them for a turkey sandwich in our farm kitchen. She wore a red apron and her soft brown hair was curling from the heat around her face, which was flushed with the excitement of her first garden tomatoes. Her enthusiasm was infectious; I was almost ready to believe that garden tomatoes tasted different than the ones you ate in town.

The knife bit into the tomato and the juice ran out, carrying along some seeds with it. Mom ate the first slice immediately. I watched her face. "Well, it's a lot better than a store tomato!" she said, with false cheeriness. But I sensed she was disappointed. She gave me a slice and I ate it. It was passable. It really didn't taste like much, maybe like tomato-tainted water.

I left the kitchen, leaving my mother sitting at the table. She was slicing and eating the tomato sadly, an absent look in her eyes, her fingers hovering above a napkin as they dripped with the bland juice.

But I wanted to tell you about when I tasted my first real tomato. I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and our family was at the Minnesota State Fair, helping to run the Organic Valley booth. We were giving out samples of cheese and milk and having a wonderful time meeting people who bought our products and telling them about our dairy farm.

I had been on my feet for hours with nothing to eat but some cheese. I was hungry and thirsty. Then two organic vegetable farmers came in with a pile of tomatoes. They began cutting them up and giving them to people. Most people turned them down, saying they hated tomatoes. But the ones that accepted got the biggest grins on their faces. I overheard phrases like, "It tastes like it's from my grandmother's garden!" again and again.

I was curious and hungry—so I went over to the farmers' table and looked at the tomatoes. The table looked beautiful, covered with tomatoes of every shape and color—pink and purple, yellow, orange and red. I stood amazed.

The woman farmer noticed me. "Would you like one?" she asked.

I didn't know what to say. I hated tomatoes. But these looked so different, like no tomatoes I'd seen before. I hesitated and she handed me a slice in this little paper container. It was plump and cool, but not cold like it had been sitting in a refrigerator. It seemed to be a fruit that loved the heat and wasn't affected by it. The seeds and juicy pulp stayed with the flesh. It looked beautiful.

"Yes." I gasped out, holding it in shock. "I want it." And a desire to eat it engulfed me. I picked it up, the farmer watching my every move. "I don't even like tomatoes," I confessed, looking into her hazel eyes as I brought it up to my mouth. I was nervous, afraid I wouldn't like it after all, that I would spit it out in front of her.

I glanced at it again and stopped in confusion. "It's yellow," I said, my disappointment welling. "It's not ripe!" I lowered it back toward its paper container. She looked at me, surprised. "It's supposed to be yellow," she said, gesturing toward the table covered with the rainbow colored fruits. "They're all heirloom tomatoes, all different colors and sizes. Even the purple ones are ripe." She smiled at me. "Not all tomatoes are red, you know." I smiled back, relieved. "I know," I said, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about.

As if stepping from a high precipice, I closed my eyes and gingerly bit into the tomato. Oh. It tasted so good! Warm and cool at the same time. Like a drink of cold water and yet like food. My mouth filled with the taste of the sun, the rain, and the earth. I could smell and see the tomato as it grew. My mind was filled with everything this tomato had seen in its life, the dew in the morning, the quiet star-filled night, the earthworms that trundled beneath the soil at the roots of its mother plant, the farmer with the watering can, the hot, hot days and the cool wind. I came to my senses, the tomato gone. Breathing heavily, I looked at the lady farmer in amazement. "Thank you." I gasped, "Thank you." "Did you like it?" she asked happily.

"Yes, oh yes." I said simply. "I loved it."

That is the story of my first tomato. Ever since then, I have planted organic heirloom tomatoes in our garden. And now, just like my mother did, and my grandparents did, in the hot summertime, when I am hungry and thirsty all at once, I go to the garden and pick a tomato. And then I go and sit on a swing, and eat it like an apple.

Farm Fact: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans eat more than 22 pounds of tomatoes every year. More than half this amount is eaten in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce.

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