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Love for fresh tomatoes turns sour in season

June 22, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Editor's note: Tim Rowland is on vacation. This column was originally published on Sept. 18, 1996.

If there's one thing that brings a refreshing little zest to the last long, hot days of summer, it certainly is the fruity tang of the homegrown tomato.

There's about a 12-week window when you can sink your teeth into the real thing, as opposed to those hard, orange, flavorless frauds that pass off as tomatoes in the supermarket produce section the rest of the year.

Oh you can try to cheat during the winter with those slightly more tolerable plum tomatoes, or cherry tomatoes or tomatoes grown hydroponically, in a hothouse, or on the south slope of some Costa Rican alluvial plain - but it's not the same.

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In my world, tomatoes are like peaches. There are two types: inedible ones and ones you have to eat over a sink.

But I'm sort of lazy, so each year at tomatoes' first blush I'm front and center at my favorite fresh produce stand for a box of the big red beauties. And they taste so good that I always mean to get back. But you know how it is. I forget, or I'm too tired, or the stand is closed and so on.

This year, however, I was determined not to be denied. That meant eliminating the middleman and raising the little devils myself.

So with a friend, I co-opted a little space behind a carport, rolled up my sleeves and went to work. I originally intended an elaborate, terraced affair with several sculpted levels edged with picturesque timbers and bordered with decorative sprays of basil and parsley - enough to inspire jealousy among the most meticulous Hagerstown Garden Club member.

But after spading up a patch of heavy sod about the size of a coffee table, I decided that was probably good enough and I'd hold off on sending in photos to the garden club.

We calculated 10 plants probably would give a sufficient crop split two ways, so we heeled them in and doused them with some kind of fluorescent liquid fertilizer the color of a thunderstorm on Doppler radar.

And what a success.

Two months later, we picked our first crop of a half-dozen big, juicy tomatoes. We feasted on bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, had them sliced with fresh basil and sweet corn and chopped them into salads.

I was feeling pretty satisfied. But two days later came a phone call: There were more tomatoes. Lots more. About a quarter bushel's worth. We couldn't waste these beauties. After all, in about six weeks they'd be gone for good.

So frantically we dove into the harvest: tomatoes on English muffins for breakfast, tomato sandwiches for lunch, fresh tomato sauce on pasta for dinner. But barely a dent was made in the basket when the plants yielded a new, even larger harvest that filled an even larger basket.

We filled ourselves with tomatoes, we filled jars with tomatoes, we filled freezers with tomatoes. No use: The plants produced a new, even bigger basket.

We took it to work. We walked up to a co-worker and generously said "how would you like..." But he pulled a loaded revolver on us and said "Oh no you don't. My neighbor grows tomatoes and so do my parents. I got tomato seeds coming out my ears, now back off, real slow."

The next co-worker said his wife was making tomato gravy for pancakes. Everywhere - at the coffee machine, on file cabinets - there were bags of tomatoes free for the taking. But no one was taking.

People talked happily at first, then wearily, then bitterly, about making salsa, tomato sauce, tomato soup, tomato bisque, tomato chutney, tomato dumplings, tomato cobbler.

Normally placid young mothers were making ominous, tomato-related threats normally associated with Palestinian terrorists.

I know it's sacrilege, but it needs to be said: There were somewhat too many homegrown tomatoes floating around this year.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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