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Ralph Gardner Jr: One Tomato

The Tomato
Ralph Gardner Jr.

The last few weeks were spent traveling in Europe at substantial cost. Not financial, though that too. The currency I’m talking about is organic, indeed edible. To be precise one heirloom tomato, approximately the size of a softball and the most beautiful piece of fruit ever to usher from my garden in its relatively short but troubled history. It ripened, was picked and eaten, all while I was abroad.

The consumer was my daughter so the good fortune remained in the family. But I’d watched the orb progress from a modest, unassuming hard green rock -- with those characteristic creases that distinguishes promising, succulent heirlooms from more prosaic tomatoes -- into a monster.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the heirloom’s potential caused me to consider postponing my trip – I was on my way to champagne country in France to attend a niece’s wedding. Though it had occurred to me just so I’d be available to indulge in the tomato’s greatness when it proved itself ready to be plucked.

However, I was well aware that to let it fall and decay or fall prey to our resident wildlife would constitute a crime, less against nature than against me personally and all the imbecilic hours and dollars I’d invested in the garden, and the mosquito bites I’d accrued spent wresting anything digestible from our four mocking raised beds.

A brief report on this year’s garden and its ups and downs. It started in the spring when the lettuce – primarily red leaf -- that had provided modest sustenance the previous year seemed not to be growing very well.

Or rather, whenever it showed life and will and new growth it would be gone by the following morning, nibbled back to its core. I suspected the culprit perpetrator but confirmed it one evening when I spotted a woodchuck approximately the size of a small bear entering the raised bed through a flap in our chicken wire as cavalierly as would a seasoned actor sweeping back a curtain to make his entrance.

By the time I discovered and remedied the breach it was essentially post-lettuce season. Besides, the heads of lettuce I bought at the Saturday morning farmer’s market in Kinderhook were so lush – a single head capable of providing the backdrop to half a dozen meals – that it made me question not only the rationality of having a garden of my own but also my very existence.

But by then our cherry tomatoes – the dependable backbenchers of our garden --were starting to ripen so my disappointment over the loss of the lettuce was alleviated. It also didn’t hurt that I typically consumed these flavorful pearls during cocktail hour in concert with a substantial vodka on the rocks and a wedge or either lemon or lime doing wonders to ones’ mood while fostering an amnesia about one’s gardening woes.

My younger daughter, a chef at the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, arrived one day with some seeds from her chef Dan Barber’s newest venture – Row 7. It’s about breeding flavor from the ground up.

I believe Gracie planted two types of seeds. I don’t recall what the second one was because it never materialized. Or maybe it did. But the cucumbers my daughter planted too close together positively overtook that particular planting bed (call it bed #2), its creeping vines bullying our basil and also several red pepper plants.

For the record, the resulting cucumbers were flavorful. Though how great can a cucumber really be?

A word about peppers. I frankly don’t think any self-respecting salad is complete without them. But they must be sweet, and preferably yellow or red.

A hot pepper is essentially a weapon of war. I thought I was buying the former by ended up with the latter, myself the lethal instrument’s sole victim before I managed to rope them off with barbed wire and several of those Cold War radiation hazard signs.

The peppers turned from green to red only late in the season, which I suppose should have served as an omen of some sort. If so, I didn’t recognize it until it was too late.

I took a bite of one – a cautious person I can’t overemphasize how miniscule a bite – only to find my mouth in flames. And then other parts of my body, after I’d inadvertently touched them.

So toxic apparently were the juices of the vegetable that when I took a bath – this was after strenuously washing my hands – and rubbed my eyes they burned me blind for several additional minutes.

I suppose this is all a long-winded way of saying that I was loathe to leave the country, no matter how delightful my niece and her finance and how scenic the prospects of her wedding at a chateau in the French countryside, when juggled against the prospects of the potentially most successful tomato my garden had ever produced.

But I boarded our flight anyway, reluctantly.

My consolation prize was a photograph from my older daughter Lucy, after I enquired what, if anything, had become of the tomato.

In the photo, the golden orb appears approximately the size of her hand. She reported that it had been huge, delicious and supplied several meals, both in sandwiches and salads.

I asked whether it could conceivably have been the best tomato she’d ever had. She wasn’t willing to go that far.

“Certainly the best tomato I’ve had that came out of our garden,” she said.

I consider it a triumph nonetheless and an incentive against my better judgment to prepare the garden for the winter, turn over the soil, and start from scratch next spring.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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