I found a brown paper bag full of tomatoes on my doorstep, along with homemade tomato chutney. I don’t know where the stuff came from, but the tomatoes were homegrown.
If there is a pleasure more marvelous than homegrown tomatoes, it’s probably illegal. And I don’t want to know about it since I come from Baptists who don’t do illegal things because it could lead to a life of secular music.
But I was reared on homegrown tomatoes. And there will be tomatoes at my funeral. I’m serious. Funeral guests will be encouraged to place tomato products into my casket.
Any tomato product will do, as long as it’s not tomato aspic. I would rather have a colonoscopy in a Third-World nation than eat tomato aspic.
When I was a kid, there was a woman in our church named Lida Ann who always made tomato aspic. She peppered her aspic with mature green olives, capers, and little gray canned shrimp. She placed her dish on the buffet table and it looked like a giant, R-rated donut.
My mother would force me to eat it because, “Lida Ann is a sweet old woman, and she went to all that trouble.”
“I don’t care if she’s Forty-Mule-Team Borax,” I would say, “I don’t wanna eat it.”
Then my mother would pinch me until I cried. So I would shuffle toward the potluck line, use a butter knife, and smear the tomato-flavored hell onto a cracker.
Miss Lida Ann would kiss my cheek and say, “Why don’t you take the rest home, since you’re the only one who eats it.”
Miss Lida Ann would wrap it in aluminum foil and send it with me. And for the rest of the week, my mother would leave it on the counter. The stuff was so bad that all the flies pitched in to get the screen door fixed.
My mother was an avid tomato gardener. People would come from miles around to buy her delicacies.
She’d place tomatoes on a fold-up table at the end of our driveway and sell them using the honor system. But the system was broken.
Sometimes my mother’s tomatoes would mysteriously disappear. She would use guilt to make me confess, but I would deny allegations and remind her that there were a lot of starving people in the world.
When my wife and I first got married, we used to drive the Highway 127 Yard Sale (also known as “The World’s Longest Yardsale”) in search of tomatoes.
Actually, we went for two reasons.
Firstly: because it was cheap fun for newlyweds who were so poor that our cat got nervous every year at Thanksgiving.
And secondly: homegrown tomatoes.
Along the seven-hundred-mile route were farmers selling buckets of tomatoes. And I mean the hard stuff like my mother once grew.
There were Early Girls, Better Boys, Beefsteaks, Cherokee Purples, Superstars, Brandywines, Mortgage Lifters, Bama Lama Ding-Dongs, Baby Makers, Marriage Wreckers, and all kinds of heirlooms.
We would eat them like apples. And sometimes, we would fix tomato sandwiches with Sunbeam bread, Duke’s mayonnaise, and tomato slices that were bigger than a grown man’s foot.
And when we finished eating, we had to change our clothes.
I tried growing tomatoes one year. I ordered special buckets from a mail-order catalog. The buckets had holes in the bottoms. You were supposed to hang them from hooks and let the tomato stalks grow downward, but it was a joke.
I’m sure the buckets work fine for some, but the squirrels ate my tomatoes. So one summer, I had to resort to a life of crime.
Every morning, I would drive to my in-laws’ house. My father-in-law had a tomato garden that he slaved over.
Before sunrise, I would roll into his driveway with my headlights turned off. I would park, make sure the coast was clear, steal a whole bag full of tomatoes, and head for Mexico. My father-in-law never caught me.
He was a great guy. He used to make the best tomato chutney you ever had. I’m not sure what was in it, but I could polish off three or four jars in one sitting.
On one Fourth of July—I’ll never forget this—my father-in-law gave me several Mason jars of chutney and a five-gallon bucket of tomatoes.
He said, “I thought you deserved your own batch of chutney, since you like it so much.”
I almost cried. His gift meant so much to me. Because when someone gives you a tomato, they aren’t just giving you a tomato. They’re giving you something much more. At least that’s how I see it.
Words will be forgotten. Friends will come and go. Civilizations will turn to dust. Heaven and Earth will pass away. But a brown paper sack of homegrown tomatoes will last for a thousand tomorrows, and then some. Because a tomato is tangible proof that God loves us.
And tomato aspic is proof that hell is real.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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