Tomatoes: Summer's Going Away Present  

Tomatoes hold a special place in my garden. One summer my father helped me take care of a handful of plants in a small plot near his garage. Life has never been the same.

Dad taught me how to get the soil ready by breaking it up and fertilizing it. He showed me the way to put the plants in the ground. And every day from about the first of May until the end of September, he was there to remind me to inspect and treat them with tender loving care. I was too small to hold the garden hose, so he helped me water them, one cup at a time, from a pail that he carried from the house.

As the blossoms appeared, he explained to me how they would turn into tiny fruits. I watched the small marble-like wonders as they grew and then turned color from green to white to red - one at a time. I showed all our visitors "my" garden. 

Not only did I realize the magic of nature, I began to understand that every plant really tasted different from the others. Recognizing the difference between ripe and not-quite-ripe became obvious to me. Sweet and tart became more than just words. 

I still remember the excitement when we picked the first one off the vine. I sat at the kitchen table with my mom and dad and we shared a Roma. Yes, that was one small Roma tomato between us, and it made me feel so grown-up. When the next one turned ripe, they showed me how to make a tomato sandwich. 

By the next summer I had convinced my grandfather to help me with my garden at "his" house too. After all, I reasoned, I needed tomatoes to look after and eat when I visited my grandparents. 

Were he alive today my father would probably chuckle about the gardener and epicurean he unleashed. Little did he know then, or probably even dream, how that summer, when I was six, would influence my life.

I still keep a small garden plot filled with tomatoes in the summer. Over the years, I've experimented growing many varieties. 

This year if you look out my kitchen window you'll see Sweet Millions - red cherries, yellow pears, Sunrays - a mid-size orange-yellow variety, Purdense Purples - which are bright pink when ripe, Rutgers - a small red salad tomato and as always, a few Romas to commemorate my first crop. 

I find experimenting with different varieties so much fun that I go overboard. Every spring I tell myself that I should only try one or two types this year. But when I look at the seed catalogs there are always too many choices. 

My grown-up rationalization says that my friends and neighbors would be disappointed without my tomatoes to watch over and devour. Besides, if there's a bumper crop I can always can them, I tell myself.

Well, bumper crop or no bumper crop, my garden is always picked clean by September. This inevitably sends me into depression thinking about not having garden-fresh tomatoes during the winter.

Then, each year I go through the same ritual: I drive out to farm country and buy two or three bushels of romas. I spend days cooking and canning quart after quart of tomato sauce and salsa. And, because you can't have enough tomato dishes around, I make eight to ten quarts of soup and freeze it for cold winter nights when I need to remember that summer will return, or just want a quick meal. 

I even eat tomato sandwiches for another week. 

Funny how much little things can influence your life. Those two Roma and two Beefsteak tomato plants were my first love affair. Thirty nine years later, I've never looked back and have no regrets.