A native of northern Ohio now living in Florida, I am enjoying freshly grown tomatoes now. I have already eaten this guy’s ripe brother. This tomato, a Brandywine, is a heritage variety which means it has NOT been hybridized to be picked early, stand up to machine picking, and long storage times. I grow it because I can remember what a tomato tastes like. I also know that it’s flavor contributes more than a red color to a salad, a burger or a BLT.
Every time I bite into the Brandywine tomato I am transferred back to the time in which I learned to appreciate the taste of a freshly picked, ripe tomato.
I had lived in northern Ohio where tomatoes were grown for processing and canning. Baskets of these bright red tomatoes were loaded and stacked five baskets high on trailers hauled by tractors from the fields where they had been picked by hand and driven through town to the canning factory.
When the first tractor, pulling the first trailer, loaded with those ripe tomatoes entered town, word spread like wildfire through the town’s kids. Any child tall enough to reach a tomato basket on the trailer headed for Patterson Street where the tractor driver would have to slow to a craw so as to and not lose his load of tomatoes while making the turn headed to Stevenson Street.
Here the game, a tradition for decades, began.
The object was simple: the children were to grab a tomato to eat; the tractor driver was to make them pay a price two fold. Unbeknownst to the rookie children in this game, the tractor driver had a basket of rotting tomatoes hidden between his legs on the tractor. As the children attacked, he threw these tomatoes at them with incredible accuracy. If you were hit, the rotting tomato would smush all over you and your clothes. If he missed, you’d grab your tomato, retreat to the shade of a tree and devour its deliciousness. The proper technique was to gently pierce the skin with your teeth and suck the juice out of it. In that way you could enjoy the fruits of your victory without leaving telltale tomato juice on your clothes.
Remember that I said the tractor driver would make them pay two fold? Yes, if you got hit it would be embarrassing, but it also would be very messy. You would be literally be covered in smushed tomato and tomato juice. And your parents would notice and demand an explanation of how this happened. I have never heard of a satisfactory explanation that would be accepted. I have heard “the tomato fell on me from the trailer, I fell on the tomatoe, I was carrying groceries for a little old lady and the tomatoes mushed”. And yet, I cannot remember a single incidence of a child being punished for this pilfering tomatoes. I have heard of them being punished for lying about how they got covered in tomato juice, but not for participating in what had become a tradition.
In today’s world, there would be police, investigations into whether the child stole the tomato, investigations into whether the tractor driver had committed a crime by throwing a rotting tomato at a child, investigations into whether the canning company and/or the farmer was liable for the stained clothes. There would be crime scene tape around the tractor and the tomato laden trailer. There would be media coverage including interviews with anyone who needed their time in the spotlight. There would be police chiefs, mayors, governors, state and federal legislators from both parties, religious leaders, non religious leaders, shopkeepers, psychologists and neighbors. While all this is going on, the tomatoes would rot in the sun. And, no one would have the taste of a real tomato to remember.
So, here I sit under the shade of a palm tree with my bright red heritage tomato in my hand, the juice sucked out, preparing to take a delicious bite having my heritage thoughts.