June 01, 2012
We need to talk.
I believe that, in general, faithful readers of these dispatches are as intelligent and sensible as they come. But word is that some of you have not even thought about planting a tomato garden.
Surely you realize that whatever you experience during the next few months cannot properly be called "summer" if it does not include the consumption of tomatoes picked five minutes ago from vines growing in your own dirt.
Sweet Solanum lycopersicum. Is there another plant that varies so greatly between the supermarket version and the homegrown? Surely we can all agree that winter supermarket tomatoes -- bred for durability, picked green and ripened with noxious gases -- are measly, flavorless abominations. But even the better heirloom varieties at your local Bodega Organica are but a pale imitation of the bright, sweet, tangy essence of life borne by a freshly picked homegrown fruit. (Yes, they're fruits, not vegetables.)
And there's really no excuse anymore for not growing your own. Variable climate? One of the new breed of small, patio- or deck-friendly greenhouses will keep plants comfortably warm even in conditions as extreme as the foggy, arctic outer reaches of San Francisco.
Not much space? Any reasonable living space can at least accommodate a few cherry tomato plants grown in suitable containers.
Just not good with plants? Comprehensive tomato-growing systems such as the TopsyTurvy or a self-watering planter make the process all but idiot-proof. Organic fertilizers, grow-cloths and hormone sprays stack the odds even more in your favor.
Not sure it's worth the trouble? How can a sensate person not be intrigued by a plant with nicknames such as "wolf peach" (a reference to the plant's supposed role in turning unwitting consumers into werewolves) and "love apple" and heirloom varieties such as the Boxcar Willie, the UglyRipe and the Mortgage Lifter? Whose history in the Western world was for centuries clouded by beliefs that the fruit was either a dangerously potent aphrodisiac or poisonous, to the extent where a British agent reportedly tried to assassinate George Washington by sneaking tomatoes onto his dinner plate.
More pragmatically, tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, a potent antioxidant shown in various studies to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, particularly of the prostate. Tomatoes are also thought to have natural blood-thinning properties, making them beneficial for preventing diabetes and stroke, and they're rich in bone-building Vitamin K. All these benefits are more pronounced in fruits allowed to fully ripen on the vine.
Tomatoes are an important part of popular culture, from the "tomayto/tomahto" debate in Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" to George Clooney's breakthrough role in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. (Sample dialogue: "That's the bravest thing I've ever seen a vegetable do.")
But it's likely that nobody's ever said it better than Texas songwriter/sage Guy Clark in his ode to the joys of backyard gardening:
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes