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

Tomato Girl, Part II

Our family has fertile, Lancaster County land in lots and parcels, scattered hither and yon: behind our house there is a small garden of beans, sugar peas, and cucumbers, embroidered with roses and peonies. Then there is a field of four acres in Rheems which Daddy plants in corn and sweet potatoes, besides the 9 acres of tomatoes over the river and through the woods near Bainbridge. That’s where I learn to really work–planting, hoeing, and picking the tomato crop.

TomatoOnVine

On the way home from the tomato field in July, I notice a few stars emerging from the twilight sky. The road from the field back to home seems more bumpy now because I’m tired, and I crave a soapy bath to scrub the green tomato plant “glue” from my legs and soak the dirt from under my fingernails. But there’s a happy spot in my mind with the picture of a beautiful bike in it.

Days in the tomato patch come and go, and finally it’s time for my birthday. Mom tells me to go hide in the dining room and wait for the surprise. From my post in front of the long, lace-covered mahogany table, I hear the screen door open to the wash-house, then the kitchen door, and finally the sound of rubber bike wheels turning on the linoleum. I can hardly wait! The anticipation of the sleek bike I pictured weeks ago in the tomato patch is soon to become real. My daddy proudly holds the handlebars of this very special bike, a look of pleasure on his face.

Well, there is a bike. There before me sits a beat-up, second-hand relic with dents that have not quite been hammered out under ugly, flat paint from the shelves of Longenecker Farm Supply. The shiny blue and white bicycle I’ve anticipated all these weeks has morphed into a wreck of muddy blue and dull white the color of pale dirt. The picture in my mind deflates with my dream, a balloon punctured with a rusty nail.

Sad Bicycle Gift_12x8_150

For a few seconds, I act happy because I should, but I can’t possibly stifle the flood of tears burning my eyes. I turn and run through the dining room and up the stairs to find solace in my bedroom.

I’d rather have a bag of dimes.

I wonder why my Dad was so proud of his present to me, one I had a totally different perception of.  Is it frugality, cluelessness? Something else?