Tomato Lust

When the late summer fruit is at its sweetest, tomato lovers can go to extremes that only other tomato lovers understand.

The tomato vines — seven-footers that suckled round Italian Romas and thick clusters of yellow and red pear tomatoes — are a twisted black heap at the back of our field. The season's last tomato was sliced, laid gently on a slice of semolina bread, dotted with black olive tapenade and then — gone!

Already I am pining. Call it a fruit-specific epicurean quest. What my infatuation boils down to is Tomato Lust — in my case, long-standing and incurable. TL's closest parallel is love itself. As anyone who adores real in-season tomatoes can tell you, unspeakable effort goes into the seeking out, the courtship of sources, the all-consuming hunt for perfection. But the rewards are sweet. The first touch of flesh to lips brings bliss. Joy, wantonness and overindulgence may follow. (I have been known to get what my family called "tomato rash" between my fingers.) And finally, as the first gassed-pink winter strumpets commandeer the market shelves, desolation — the end of the affair.

The romance analogy is nearly as old as the fruit itself: The tomato has long been called "the love apple" and "the amorous apple." We have had a tempestuous relationship with it since the 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadors first brought this divine food back to Europe from Mexico. As members of the occasionally deadly nightshade family, tomatoes also suffered periodic slur campaigns, with some seventeenth-century herbalists declaring them corrupt, non-nourishing and poisonous — like certain forms of love.

I can see how tomatoes might have gotten what girl groups used to call "a bad repu-tay-shun." Tomato Lust has sometimes driven me to extreme behavior. A longtime apartment dweller without even a windowsill for growing, I decided that I had to have my own tomatoes at my island beach house. Undeterred by the swampy, sandy strips of yard surrounding the place, I piled a load of lumber onto a freight ferry and hammered together odd but workable planters for the deck. Cockeyed lath trellises tied with string contained vine sprawl. When deer discovered the joys of patio dining, I installed pricey gates; anyone calculating the cost per tomato would certify me as foolish indeed. I carried on this way for a decade. The harvests were bountiful, and some of the rewards were unexpected. It was during one season's fall tomatothon, when the house was being closed and the last ferry beckoned, that my future husband and I first stumbled toward each other amid the intoxicating aromas from two steaming pots of sauce — and a pitcher of throbbingly fresh Bloody Marys.

From such Tomato Lust children eventually resulted. We sold the beach house, and I girded myself for the ultimate combat. Manhattanites at my West Side farmers' market lined up feistily for just-picked tomatoes much the way Muscovites were kneecapping one another for butter. Startled farmers, pinned behind their ruby-red bunkers, pleaded for calm. Then they got wise and jacked up the prices: $2, $3, $4 a pound. They knew we had to have it.

I struggled from the stand with my booty one day and leaned against the chain-link fence to suck rapturously on an heirloom Brandywine. The farmer's teenage daughter — a sylph in a Metallica T-shirt — elbowed her dad. He walked over and dumped a basket of glistening yellow pear tomatoes into my bag. "There," he said, "just so you make it home with some." I thanked him as best I could with seeds on my chin.

I caught TL early on from my father, a beefsteak devotee who fussed, sprayed and staked a patch in our small suburban yard. It consumed him almost year-round. In winter he collected plastic coffee-creamer containers at the diner and fashioned them into snug collars to shield seedlings from murderous cutworms. Come spring, he'd head to a place a few towns away he called the Polish flower farm, a misbegotten set of greenhouses surrounded by propane tanks and old sinks. There, in spirited Polish, he'd exchange growing tips and creative insults with the broad-cheeked woman who oversaw the Early Girls, the Better Boys, the utilitarian Romas. He always planted them on or about Mother's Day. Mom got the Whitman Sampler; the seedlings got fish emulsion.

Sixty to eighty days later, this was his just dessert: Into a soup bowl, cut your best tomato. Add a pinch of salt, a grinding of pepper, slivered basil and a scant teaspoon of transparent-sliced red onion. Drizzle with olive oil; add a splash of red-wine vinegar. Let the mixture steep through the rest of the meal. Savor the tomatoes last, then scoop up their basil-scented elixir with a soupspoon. Better still, sop it up with bread. I can still see my dad under the kitchen light, eyes closed, bowl empty. "Oh yeah," he'd breathe, "this year is good."

Sometimes it was not. Perfect love gone bad—holes torn by the ugly maws of slugs and hornworms, too much rain, heartbreaking late-season blight — would find my dad inconsolable after that first taste. "Too watery. Aw, jeez...mealy." These disappointments were slid contemptuously into hamburger buns, mashed into sauce. Dad ranted; he grieved. He blamed himself.

A good harvest requires artful presentation. One of the most luscious showcases is a recipe attributed to a most passionate pair of boho voluptuaries. Salvador and Gala Dalí dressed for dinner as though it were the apocalypse, and they cooked with no less abandon, publishing their own richly illustrated surrealist cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala. As adapted by Deborah Madison in her classic Greens Cookbook, Dalí's Provençal gratin — a gorgeous composition of potatoes, red onions, olives, herbs and tomatoes — has reduced the wittiest dinner companion to whimpering.

How fierce is my love? I now cosset homegrowns on a rocky Connecticut hillside. And I confess I grew absurdly upset during the '96-to-'98 Chipmunk Wars, when those rats with racing stripes gnawed my darlings at the first blush of pink. Taking a tip from my husband's grandma, a no-nonsense woman plagued with raccoons in her corn patch, I strapped a plastic-wrapped transistor radio to a tomato stake and set the dial to a megawatt rap station. Coolio and Dr. Dre shook up the cukes, but the varmints chomped on. Frantic, I found myself cruising the Predator Urine aisle at Agway. Forking over $14 for some repellent eau de coyote, I finally admitted to myself: Honey, you've wandered out where the buses don't run.

The drama continues undiminished. Our neighbors averted their eyes this past summer at the sight of me hopping into the garden using a walker with a colander wired to the front. No broken leg was going to make me neglect the vines. My husband twitched visibly as I described the combination composter/tomato trellis I want to build this spring. But knowing full well the inexorable tug of Tomato Lust, he bought me the most romantic Christmas gifts he could think of: a book on garden pests and a big celadon bowl just perfect know.

Gerri Hirshey is the author, most recently, of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock.

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