I stopped at the local fruit and vegetable market to check out the tomatoes on my way home from an afternoon walk in the marsh.
The tables out front, displaying baskets of tomatoes in recent months, were now covered with pumpkins and other unsightly squash. Not a good sign.
I’d sliced half of the last one at home for a sandwich at lunchtime.
“Do you think there are any more field-tomatoes at Herridge’s?” I called out from the kitchen.
“No, they’re all gone,” Linda replied.
I held out hope she was mistaken, without unleashing one of my usual tirades about supermarket produce being mostly garbage.
Living in southern Ontario, tomatoes are my autumn groundhog. No more tomatoes means winter is coming soon and another year of inedible hothouse frauds.
I didn’t care about tomatoes when I was growing up in New York. My dad was the only one in the family who liked them, so they were rarely at the top of my mother’s shopping list.
I followed her lead when it came to fruits and vegetables.
She preferred her vegetables raw – broccoli stalks and kohlrabi, peeled and salted, peas scooped out of the pod, crisp celery.
Her taste in fruit ranged from tart red plums to tart Granny Smith apples.
As a teenager, I struck out on my own, developing an affection for nectarines after hearing the 2,000 Year Old Man:
“Fruit kept me going for 140 years once when I was on a very strict diet. Mainly nectarines. I love that fruit. It’s half a peach, half a plum. It’s a helluva fruit. It’s not too cold, not too hot. Just nice. Even a rotten one is good. That’s how much I love ’em. I’d rather eat a rotten nectarine than a fine plum, what do you think of that?”
– Mel Brooks
My annual obsession with tomatoes did not begin until we moved into our first house in Clarkson, soon after Jodie was born in 1983, and discovered Herridge’s market.
These tomatoes were not orbs with rock-hard, white innards, or the ones that oozed green slime. These were as red on the inside as on the outside, firm yet juicy, carrying the subtle scent of earthly ambrosia.
I’d start stopping by Herridge’s in late July – “Have any field-tomatoes yet? – and keep going back until its crop was exhausted.
For a couple of months, there would always be a half-dozen or so red beauties on the kitchen counter, auditioning for the next meal.
For lunch, two thick slices , dabbed with mayo, sitting atop roast turkey or tuna salad or Balderson cheddar on fresh bakery bread.
At dinnertime, I’d slice a couple more for a side dish, drizzle them with Newman’s Family Recipe Italian dressing, maybe add chunks of cukes, also fresh-picked in season.
“What would you think of having real tomatoes year-round?” my friend Mike said to me one winter afternoon, sitting on the dock of the bay on Sanibel Island.
“Is this one of those if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon-why-can’t-they questions?”
“Precisely,” he said. “Only this question has an answer.”
Mike and his wife Geneva had built a large house on San Carlos Bay, just down the beach from the modest cottage Linda and I rented for winter vacations for more than ten years starting after Lacey was born in 1986.
He’d retired from a corporate career in Chicago and, as the story went, struck it rich when he backed the inventor of microwave popcorn.
His tomato brainstorm involved farms in Chile, a fleet of jets, and dedicated grocers in the big cities across North America. “There is no reason we have to be satisfied with inferior tomatoes for all but a few months.”
But, though we saw each other in Florida every year, his tomato plan never came up again. His death notice arrived in the mail sometime in 2003.
Anyway, I stopped at Herridge’s last week, walked down the vegetable aisle – don’t tell produce merchants that tomatoes are a fruit – and frowned at the pale imitations where the real ones had been.
I meandered around the market for a few more minutes, shaking my head. “See you next year,” I said to no one in particular as I left.
The next day, at lunchtime, I sliced some Balderson cheddar and the last half of the last tomato.