My journey to true tomato love was a long one. I spent the bulk of my childhood and teenaged years not liking tomatoes, for no other reason than the fact that my father did not like tomatoes. A pathetic reason to shun one of nature's most exquisite accomplishments, but little girls look up to their dads, sometimes not knowing or caring in the moment that he was terribly wrong.
Every summer I would hear my aunt, mother, grandmother's and various other tomato lovers, extol the glories of a garden fresh tomato. "There is just nothing like a summer tomato straight from the garden", they would say. "So much better than the flavorless grocery store ones", they would prattle on. I just did not understand; they all tasted like flavorless, gooey globs to me. Perhaps my first taste of a tomato, was of the grocery store variety or perhaps I was just stubborn and had my mind made up that they were plain gross. Who knows for sure? Time seems to fade unpleasant memories. What I do know, is that I spent several more years refusing to taste a tomato.
I spent most every summer in North Carolina, where my two sets of grandparents lived. They both had lovely kitchen gardens that grew a variety of vegetables, but most prized, were always the tomatoes. As time went by, I started to feel slightly left out of the excitement surrounding the arrival of what my family referred to as, the first "good" tomatoes. My maternal grandmother would carefully peel the skin off of one of the plump, crimson orbs, still warm from the vine. She would then lay thick slices on bread that had been slathered with mayonnaise, next, a dusting of salt and pepper, then topped off with another slice of soft, mayo covered bread. The tomato lovers would oooh and ahhh with every bite of their sandwich; wash it down with a tall glass of iced tea and continue on with the remainder of their day with an extra twinkle in their eyes and bigger grins on their faces. I knew I was missing out on something special.
I vividly remember the time when I finally tasted a "good" tomato. It was sliced on top of a hamburger. I don't believe that I was even aware that the tomato was nestled between the patty and bun, but I knew instantly, when I bit into that sandwich, what I had been missing all of those years. It was an explosion of sweet juiciness that made my tastebuds dance and left me with the same knowing grin that I had witnessed on the faces of all the tomato lovers I had crossed paths with over the years.
From that moment on, I was hooked and have since dedicated every summer since, to the pursuit of the first "good" tomato of the summer.
More recently, my summer tomato ritual has included canning, cases and cases of tomatoes with my canning group. We lovingly call ourselves, The Can Can Girls. These can can girls are not into high leg kicks and ruffled skirts, but rather, cute aprons and Ball jars. This group of six, is now like a well oiled machine, that can put up dozens upon dozens of quarts of tomatoes in a day.
These jars of juicy gems have become one of my most prized possessions. I greedily horde my jars of tomatoes and rarely share them with anyone else. (I readily admit that, I need to go back to kindergarten and re-read the chapter on sharing) I will gladly share other items that we can, just not tomatoes. My favorite thing to do with the jarred tomatoes is to make a quick sauce for pasta. It is simply a splash of olive oil, some chopped onion, a grated garlic clove, a splash of white wine or chicken stock and a jar of Can-Can Girls, juicy tomatoes. In twenty minutes, I have a bright and flavorful sauce, that is especially welcome during the dark days of winter.
This summer, I have been franticly searching for my first "good" tomato of the summer. Although, it took a bit longer than usual this season, I finally found it! I stopped at the Osage Farmer's Market in Dillard, GA yesterday on the way home from a family reunion in Franklin, N.C. I loaded up on goodies from the farm stand, but it was the tomatoes that I was most excited about. As I drove home, with a heavy foot on the gas pedal, the possibility of finally getting the perfect summer tomato was exciting! I could smell the aroma of the fruit, wafting up from the back seat. I called the house to make sure that we had a loaf of bread and some mayo on hand, as a stop at the grocery store would only delay my much anticipated lunch. I rolled into the driveway, grabbed the bags of fresh veggies (the suitcase could wait till later), and breezed into the house. I was on a mission. After a quick "Hi" to the family and my pooch, it was on to selecting the perfect specimen for my sandwich. I had built this up so much in my mind, that had the tomato sandwich been a flavorless bust, I might be at my therapist this morning, contemplating how a bad tomato sandwich had sunk me into a deep depression. But alas, I am here at my computer, writing like a maniac, in an effort try to capture the excitement that remains from the perfectly "good" summer tomato sandwich that I ate yesterday.
Unlike at my grandmother's house all those years ago, my sandwich did not make it to the kitchen table to be eaten in a civilized manner, on a plate with a napkin in my lap. This was a drippy kitchen counter meal, served on a paper towel; but, like at my grandmother's house, it was washed down with a tall glass of iced tea, and I most certainly went about the rest of my day, with a grin on my face. The grin that had eluded me for some many years; the grin of someone who had finally had their first "good" summer tomato.