Tomatoes Tell the Tale

September 28, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

So, sometime in mid-July, I bought a four-pack of tiny, undernourished tomato plants for 34 cents. I took a picture of their tiny stems, woefully placed in a modicum of earth, in four little plastic pockets, hoping for the best. I didn’t even just take them; I went into the shop, plonked my [35] cents down on the counter, collected my receipt and off we went.

Every year for many years, there has been a garden full of tomato plants in my yard, as many as 60 plants, of which all survived in my very first year. They are all plum tomatoes or Roma, suitable for making sauce, a fine pasta sauce, perfect as a base for so many dishes all through the winter to come. The sauce is preserved in rows of study Mason jars, and it makes me so happy to see boxes and boxes of Mason jars still sold in shops because that speaks to a positive heritage routine still practiced in this century’s homes.

This is another legacy you may well not be surprised to learn, handed down to me by my much-loved maternal grandparents. Well, they just preserved the tomatoes, great vats of the fruit simmering with a little salt and lemon, then the whole routine, a tidy system between the two of them, of filling and filing. They were careful to cover the jars with cloth against too much variation in temperature during those early hours, waiting to hear the pop! of the metal seal settling in to keep that produce safe for years if need be.

Anyway, I brought those teeny tomatoes home and put them straight into my raised garden of 30-year-old Patrick Earth, an actual remnant of the manure pile from all those years ago, and it is like magic.

Tomatoes require a level of love and attention other plants might not necessarily place on the gardener. One talks to tomatoes, neighbourhood gossip, could be, plans for the day or the week, admiration of the plant itself – you know, how you would talk to tomatoes. Their “suckers” need to be removed, stray branches that grow between fruit-bearing branches and take nourishment from the plant.

It is necessary to plant marigolds around the border of the tomato garden to keep away the butterflies that lay the eggs for tomato worms. These grow to an amazing size as great green caterpillar-shaped bugs that munch on the leaves and fruit of the plant if not discovered and removed. They leave their waste on the branches and will spit at the person trying to extricate these monsters from the plant. Don’t think you can just throw these creatures into a bush well away from the garden. I tried that one year, and the next day, they had marched straight back. Only a fatal blow solves the problem, but they are so big… we took a number of methods, but planting marigolds is better.

When it comes time to harvest and preserve, my life in Italy provides the recipe for the basic sauce that goes into the jars and reminds us of sunnier, warmer days when the cold snows blow.

In brief, the tomatoes themselves, as the base, are combined with well-chopped garlic, onion, carrot, celery, Italian broad leaf parsley, begun to cook in good olive oil, with bay leaf, salt and enough good red wine. A wine merchant friend of mine in Europe once advised me very seriously, “Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.”

With this sauce, you can poach everything, and sometimes, when there is sauce left over in the morning, I heat it up and poach eggs in it – toast, tea- wonderful.

No doubt you are wondering how my 34 (really 35) cent tomatoes are doing, tiny as they were and late in the season to be planted. It was a leap of faith, of course, especially as one of them lost its main upright branch and had to begin with one side branch only. They were placed with enough space for growth between them in the antique manure – earth, and they were tended and coddled, watered and trimmed as required. The cat, dog, and I do daily rounds, and it has all been entirely worth it!

They paid attention to the business of growing, of leaving those tiny plastic boxes behind as a memory well dumped. It was too late in the season to worry about tomato worms, but we were diligent about looking out for them anyway. The tomato plants have flourished. I left the bed to go a little wild, keeping an eye on what else was in the garden but the leafy greens that have dominated the area around the tomatoes have contributed to keeping the earth moist, not rotting.

Last week, we had our first ripened, lovely red tomato. I brought it in and reverently washed and sliced it, put it on a plate with organic olive oil, and shared it with Patricia. All was pleasure and delight.

The Queen of Hearts would say, for sure, “And the moral of that story is from small things, great things can come.”

That can be true. Certainly, our tomatoes’ well-being and burgeoning crop are getting riper by the day believes but you can see the metaphor without her pushing the narrative. This is really a tale away from the world’s troubling times, like a gift.

Even if you do not specifically grow Roma tomatoes, you still can make a nice sauce to warm your winter dinners.

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