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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: Tomatoes and eating local

By July 12, 20112 Comments

It’s hot, hot, and hotter in southern Indiana this week. Yesterday, we had a heat index of 115, which is to say it wasn’t actually 115 degrees out there (more like 94) but according to the weather experts, it felt like 115. That would be the humidity. Southern Indiana is kind of like Mississippi in short spurts during the summer, only without all the advantages of being in Mississippi.

This week is fair week up at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Though my stepdaughter returned from the 4-H dog agility competition on Sunday night with an armful of stuffed animals she “won” with the money we told her not to use on stuffed animals (such is the attention span of a 10 year old), I myself have not ventured up to the fair this year. There’s a fairly strong chance that will happen Wednesday or Thursday when our daughter comes back to us and realizes that there are yet more stuffed animals to be “won.”

So in lieu of fair reportage, I thought I’d talk this week about local food some. This Saturday night, my husband and I will be hosting our Foodstock dinnner. Foodstock is a fundraiser for our local Girls Inc., in which locals volunteer to host events which folks pay to attend. Our event is called, Calling All Locavores, and is a celebration of local food.

Long before I read Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, I was into local food. I just wouldn’t have called it that. In my family, there are certain vegetables which it has always been sacrilege to buy in a grocery store. In fact, sacrilege doesn’t even correctly describe it, because sacrilege assumes that you’ve thought of buying the vegetables at some point, and someone told you not to. The thought of buying things like an ear of corn, a can of green beans, or a peach, in a grocery store just really never occurred to us. Why on earth would you do that?

I’ve seen lots of buzz on the internet lately about the book, Tomatoland, and it sounds like a very interesting read. I can’t say I’m really surprised to hear most of the things this book has to say about tomatoes. What makes me sad is thinking that perhaps some people out there think tomatoes actually taste like those things you buy in the grocery store. My friends, those things are not tomatoes.

The best way to eat a tomato is to walk out into your garden on a particularly hot and sunny day armed with a salt shaker. Look for a tomato that is not its reddest ripe, but in that moment of perfect tartness when the tomato is not fully ripe, but has lost all vestiges of being green. Do not be fooled by the pretty tomato. The pretty tomato tastes like crap. Go for the ugly tomato. I find the best ones have little lines that look like parts of concentric circles coming out from the stem. But even the ones that have clearly cracked at some point and then healed over will taste just fine. Identifying the tastiest tomato takes long years of practice, but it is a skill well worth acquiring (Not to brag or anything, but if there were a contest in identifying the tastiest tomato, I feel certain that I would be world champion.  For example, I can tell that the tomato on the cover of Tomatoland is a store bought rather than a fresh tomato just by looking at it.  It’s got that sinister look about it.).

Pick the tomato and feel how it has been nicely warmed by the summer sun. It’s not cooked, but there’s clearly something about relaxing on the vine in the July heat that makes the flavors of a tomato sing. Bite into the tomato. I start at the stem with a small bite to create some flesh to sprinkle salt onto. As my mother told me at a very young age, eating a tomato stem won’t hurt you a bit. It’s roughage. Many folks have looked at me askance when they see me eating the tomato, stem and all, but don’t let this bother you. Tomatoes, real tomatoes, are fleeting things. In southern Indiana, they’re really only around from July (early July, if you’re lucky) through perhaps September or even October if you do a late planting. That’s only 3 to maybe 4 months of the year when you can enjoy this gastronomical sensation. Don’t waste a single bite. Eat the stem. It may get messy. Okay, honestly, it will get messy. I can show you my collection of shirts that I’ve ruined by getting tomato on them in the summer. But see above. Fleeting. Here today, gone tomorrow. Ruining a shirt is an adequate price to pay.

How many tomatoes is it acceptable to eat in this manner, in the garden, with your salt shaker and tomato dripping all down your chin and onto the shirt which you no longer care about? There’s some debate here. My mother always felt certain that I would make myself sick eating that many tomatoes, but I have to say for myself, this has never happened. I have really never made myself sick from eating tomatoes, and, I’m not bragging, but I have a pretty expansive capacity for tomato eating. I will not reveal to you the number of people in my life who have said to me at some point or another, “Are you really going to eat another tomato?” And the answer has always been, “Why, yes, I am. What of it?” In fact, I should warn you that if you bring real tomatoes into my presence, I kind of expect that you will pay me a tomato tax, which is to say, give me some of your tomatoes. Just saying.

If you have not eaten a tomato in this manner, go find a garden and do it now. There is absolutely nothing cooking-wise you can do to a tomato that will ever make it taste better than it does just like that, fresh off the vine in the sunshine.

Now, our tomato plants in particular appear to have the blight, and some spider mites, so who knows what will happen with our tomato crop. Such is the nature of gardening. A lot of hard work and sometimes shaky results. Luckily in Madison, there’s always the Farmer’s Market, and the CSA we participate in (Eating Seasonally CSA out of Vevay). And even with the blight, I feel certain I’ll get to eat a few tomatoes straight off the vine.

This year we had an erratic spring…very rainy, and then very cold, and then very dry, and then very hot. So the tomatoes seem to be coming on a little slowly. So far I’ve eaten 4 out of my garden, all of them little Juliet hybrid. My mother’s gotten 4 little cherries. And we got 2 tomatoes in last week’s CSA bag. The waiting for tomato onset is a torturous thing. We do can tomatoes and freeze tomatoes, so that we can at least preserve some of that goodness for the winter months. But really nothing compares to the fresh tomato.

my knitted homage to the tomato

Most summers I spend a lot of time in late June and early July stalking through my garden and my mother’s garden, looking for the first sign of ripening. In high school biology, I learned that fruits like tomatoes ripen due to the release of a certain plant hormone called ethylene. This is why you put avocados or peaches in a bag to help them ripen faster. Putting them in the bag traps and concentrates the ethylene. Based on a less than perfectly scientific application of these facts, I have been known to try placing ripe fruit in the garden to try to hurry along the ripening of the first tomatoes. And I generally try to leave the first tomato that ripens in the garden as long as possible to share its ethylene with the other plants. This is a risky practice, admittedly, as it means your first tomato may get munched on by any number of animal species who share my own tomato obsession. I don’t think any of this actually works, but it helps entertain me while I’m waiting for the first tomato.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I could to on and on about tomatoes. I think someone should distill the essence of tomato vine and turn it into a perfume or cologne (Update:  Someone has!  A friend sent me this link, to actual tomato cologne) . I don’t think my husband has even been sexier than after he’s been tying up tomatoes, and his hands are just starting to turn that lovely shade of green you get from handling tomato plants (that might be too much information). I read once that the ‘apple’ in the Garden of Eden was really at tomato, and who could blame Eve if it was? I, too, would be willing to condemn the human race to a life of sin just to get a bite of a fresh tomato. I don’t know how much of the world survived before tomatoes were introduced from the New World in the 14th century, but I feel certain there was much unhappiness directly related to the lack of tomatoes in their lives.

Okay, I’m stopping now. Hope your tomatoes ripen soon and may all your shirts be tomato-stained.


  • Robyn, your posts continue to amaze me. They are always engaging and informative, and I love your meandering narrative in this one. Ode to the tomato, indeed! Fresh out of the garden with salt is my favorite way to eat one, too. But I'd always heard that the stems are poisonous. So I'm clearly going to have to look into those claims I've always heard and see what's going on there…is it maybe like rhubarb, so that the tomato stalk is poisonous, but not the stem or the fruit?

  • Robyn says:

    Emily, I kind of had to laugh when I read that about the stems being poisonous. If so, I've developed quite an immunity. Someone told me that green potatoes are poisonous, but I've eaten bits of the, too, and am still alive and kicking. I wonder if it's the exact meaning of “poisonous” that's the problem. A friend told me that the leaves of rhubarb will make you sick if you eat them, but won't actually kill you. That sounds more reasonable, because otherwise, don't you'd think you'd hear a lot of folks dying of rhubarb, potato, tomato stem poisoning? Happy tomato eating!

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