Ode to Tomatoes: Plant, Pick, Eat

 Tomato Girl_crop_9x7_150

I never think of myself as a Daddy’s girl, because I get along with Mom better. But there I am in plain daylight grinning as I ride the tractor with Daddy. We’re cultivating the 9 acres of land in Bainbridge for the next tomato crop. I stand on the tractor’s floor board with the evenly spaced holes for draining mud and moisture. Hanging onto the back of the tractor seat, we climb a grade — putt-putt-putt-putt-putt — and then back on level ground, mom snaps our picture. It’s a warm day in May, and I see beads of sweat on Daddy’s neck even though there’s a slight breeze blowing.

Cultivating land for tomato crop in Bainbridge
Cultivating land for tomato crop in Bainbridge

Daddy wears many hats in his farm supply business. He mans the parts department, hires mechanics, markets his equipment, and when a new tractor, harvester, or cultivator arrives, he walks across the street in Rheems to the railroad tracks at the appointed time and pulls a new tractor from a PA Railroad freight car that stops for just minutes to make the delivery.

He is so proud of his new tractor. Either he has ordered it for a farmer from the Minneapolis Moline plant, or he has someone in mind to sell it to. I hear him on the phone now with a prospect: “Hello, this is Longenecker from Rheems . . . .“ Everyone in northern Lancaster County knows him, so he doesn’t have to say “Longenecker Farm Supply” or explain who he is.

Sister Jean and I admiring the new Minneapolis Moline tractor with Daddy
Sister Jean and I admiring the new Minneapolis Moline tractor with Daddy

If there are Urban Mamas in Lancaster city, we don’t know about them. Everyone we know eats fresh and local from farms or country gardens. Cherries in May, peas in June, and sweet corn and tomatoes all summer long. In pea season, we gather around the kitchen table and eat a light supper of peas from the garden in a huge bowl. The china serving bowl I see now has embossed pink flowers and gilt edging. Of course, Mom pours lightly browned butter on top. “Butter always makes it better,” she says. After our fill of peas, peas, peas, there might be Breyer’s butter brickle ice cream and pretzels.

And sometimes, tomato sandwiches. Now, you ask, why would you eat tomato sandwiches when you were in the tomato patch all summer? Wouldn’t you be sick and tired of them? Well, not the way Mother fixes them:

TomatoOnVine

How to make the Perfect Tomato Sandwich, according to Mother Longenecker:

  • 2 slices of bread
  • Spread one side of each with mayonnaise, always Hellman’s
  • Layer medium-sliced, fresh tomatoes from the field (none of this harvest-green and then spray-with-preservatives business from the grocery store.)
  • Sprinkle some sugar on top of the tomatoes—and there you are!

TomSandYellow

If  you are counting calories and watching your waistline, this is not your dish. But try it just this once. It’s kind of sloppy: bright red tomato juice oozes out and puddles your plate, nourishing your senses and soul.

. . . at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

excerpt from “Ode to Tomatoes,” Pablo Neruda

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20 thoughts on “Ode to Tomatoes: Plant, Pick, Eat

  1. Thanks for this revery, Marian, and for the Neruda poem, which I don’t believe I have read before. Delightful as always. Love the details: your father’s beads of sweat, for example. These fragments from the past can guide us as we seek to keep alive the “fiery color” of the good things of the earth and heart.

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    1. As I read your reply, it occurred to me that “earth” and “heart” are partial anagrams. And, I suspect from the excerpts from your book I’ve read, a two-word summary of its themes and essence.

      I guess with each passing day you are getting more and more fired up about your book launch. I’m so excited–and it’s not even my book! Well, maybe sort of: Parallel Pennsylvania Lives . . . .

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  2. There is no better summer taste than a homegrown tomato…not the watery tasting adulterated ones you buy in the store, but the really deep red juicy ones from the back yard. Then you slice it thick and wedge them between two slices of soft white bread with a little mayo and salt and pepper. Or better yet, sneak them out of the garden whole and top them off with a little sprinkled salt in your hand for dipping as you hide behind the woodbox and hope nobody saw you, and pray grandmother blames it on the deer.

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    1. What a lovely tribute to your father, farming, and tomatoes! Your experiences growing up are so different from mine, but I agree–tomatoes fresh from the farm or garden patch are so wonderful!

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  3. It looks like Daddy is running the tractor with only one front wheel in second picture.

    Would love to have a copy of me on the tractor. I don’t have many baby pictures being the 3rd girl. Jean

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    1. It’s YOURS! The photo, that is. Actually the original is so fuzzy, we didn’t realize you were actually on the picture until Cliff did a zoom-in with PhotoShop, and voila!

      Yes, the one front-wheeled tractor has always puzzled me. Do you think Raffie would know? Ha!

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      1. I enjoy the pictures so much. And also the comment from Jean. Walter also noticed the one front wheel missing. Keep showing pictures, they are special. Of course I remember your Dad and your Mother.

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  4. It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating
    a homegrown tomato.
    Lewis Grizzard

    I loved this post on tomatoes, especially the farming element. It brought to mind all the great art which shows people communing with the earth and living off the land. I very much enjoyed the photos too. It reminded me a favorite Van Gogh paintings which complements your story – THE SOWER.
    Van Gogh, The Sower
    As a Southern city girl, we did have Fried Green Tomatoes though! My mother aways salted the green tomatoes and let them stand for 20 minutes before coating them with corn meal and then frying them up. it s amazing how much water the salt pulls out of the tomatoes, so you don’t end up with soggy breading. However, I must confess that I never ate any of these Southern treats. Why! Although I love tomato juice, tomato sauce, ketchup etc., I cannot eat a raw tomato. Perhaps it’s the texture? I do not know!

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  5. Marian, Walter says he wishes he could see a picture of your Dad’s business. Walter likes old stuff, he recently put a trough out in front of our house. I’ll put a picture on FB when it is finished.

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    1. THe business was sold in 1987, a year after Daddy died. The building in Rheems is some kind of storage unit now, I think. I have a photo of my brother Mark standing in front of the shop years ago. I may use it in another blog down the road. Sorry I can’t attach a picture in the “Comments” part of my blog.

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