It is blisteringly hot this summer, which always makes me think of beefsteak tomatoes. My uncle, who passed away about 4 years ago, grew fabulous beefsteak tomatoes. They were the size of cantaloupes, as big as a child’s head. He used no chemical fertilizers, just natural soil enhancements such as compost and rotted dung. He also had some of the best, loamiest soil around in which to grow them. I loved those tomatoes as a child.
I remember that when we’d go to visit him in North Carolina in the baking heat of the summer, he’d always take me out to admire his tomato plants. I was little enough that they reminded me of Jack’s beanstalks, stretching up, up, up into the sky. He used old pieces of lumber as poles and tied the plants up with bits of used up ladies’ stockings. Those plants had leaves as big as parasols, the thick stalks straining to hold the weight of massive, gorgeous tomatoes.
He picked them before they were completely ripe and then set them on an old picnic table on the east side of his house, so that they could finish ripening in the gentler morning sun. He told me that if he left them on the vine to completely ripen, the birds would get at them and then “they warn’t no good no more”. If our stay was longer than a couple of days, I would make sure to go and check his ripening tomatoes every day, my mouth watering at the thought of a plate of beefsteak tomatoes, heavily seasoned with good, coarse black pepper and a thorough sprinkling of salt, blood red juice filling the plate around the slices, and a heavenly, coppery, organic tomato smell reaching up to tempt my nostrils.
When the tomatoes started ripening en mass, we’d eat them at every meal. Tomatoes on the side with breakfast eggs, tomato sandwiches for lunch made with real mayonnaise and soft white bread, and two or three slices of tomato dominating the plate at dinner, making whatever meat was being served insignificant in comparison. Man, those were some tasty tomatoes!
I tried growing tomatoes here when we first moved in. Our soil is sandy and we were in the middle of a decade long moderate drought, so they didn’t fare well. We got maybe two or three seriously big beefsteak tomatoes from my fledgling garden, and I liked them more than anyone else, so I ate them up myself.
Across the river, the soil is much better, dark, rich with humus, retains water; I envy that soil. One of my husband’s friends has a little garden, and the first year he grew vegetables, he planted zucchini and several types of tomatoes. They grew like they were crazed on adrenaline and amphetamines – all over the damned place, into his neighbors’ yards, over the fence, stretching out behind his garage; it was madness. And all of them fruited like mad, too.
He had no idea of what to do with all the zucchini and tomatoes his garden had produced, since his small family could only store so much zucchini bread and eat so many tomatoes. He was kind enough to share a couple of bags of each with us, and he told us about how he still had four or five bags of each in the backseat of his car that day, more ripening on the vines, and he was driving around, trying to think of who he knew who might not have a bounteous supply of their own and who might be happy to get some tomatoes and zucchini from him.
“It’s gotten to the point where I’m thinking of checking parking lots for unlocked cars!” he stated. It took me a minute to put the two things together in context, and then it dawned on me that he was joking about anonymously giving his veggies to anyone who left their cars unlocked in parking lots around town. I thought that was one of the funniest things I’d heard of, and I laughed about it off and on over the rest of that summer.
I don’t have a vegetable garden this year, more’s the pity. It probably would have done really well, what with the heat and the rain we’ve gotten. I sure do miss those beefsteak tomatoes – they speak of summer to me even more eloquently than watermelon and picnics.
Oh, in case anyone’s wondering, and, John, if you’re reading this – I’ll be at the Big R store today around three today, and I don’t think I’ll be locking up the car!