The Perfect Tomato and the Imperfect Tomato Sauce
Usually my comedic husband gives me top billing: he manages my website, washes my car, and quickly hands me a paper bag whenever I’m hyperventilating. At this time of year, however, my attention status drops when his distracting search for the perfect tomato takes my place.
Over the years of blistering summers, romantic summers, and crazy-moving-around summers, I’ve enjoyed looking at this man’s spectacular gardens. Please note the specific expression looking at; I do not enjoy weeding it, slapping the bugs in it, and looking all sweaty and red in the face. Factor in being hunched over in an unflattering hat for hours, hoping I can stand when I’m done, and I think I rest my case. Call it vanity or call it reality, as long as I’m not holding the handle on a spade I’m good.
My husband, on the other hand, was born with seeds in his pockets and his manly hands on a shovel - the perfect hybrid of W. Atlee Burpee and the Farmer in the Dell.
Plant devotion doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Failure abounds from uncontrollable outside forces that kill plants, hide worms, bring black spot and drop both leaves and gardeners to their knees. In past seasons my husband’s seeds were eaten by birds or didn’t germinate or if they did sprout they grew to attract critters that flew, bit, dug up roots and carried away stray cats.
People who avoid working outdoors may not fully appreciate the valiant efforts that go into yielding big, red, juicy, drip-down-your-chin tomatoes. This year I’m voting for the Farmer in the Dell’s Big Boys because they are consistently and predictably delicious. I’m also thinking about how many ways I’ll serve them. See, that’s the deal over here after 45 years of harvesting: W. Atlee plants; I cook.
Now, let me back up a little. Some years ago in August, 1974, my husband, a man of the earth, ripped up a quarter of our quarter acre parcel for a garden. In that fertile space - which was previously farmland - he planted things which grew so enormous that our toddlers could get lost in there for days. And, since we lived close to Rutgers Cook College, he often drove to the campus to load up two trash cans with fresh manure and return with dreams of harvesting copious amounts of prize winning tomatoes. Why buy fertilizer in bags when you can get it fresh and free and oh so aromatic?
“Dick,” I said the day following the final frost that first spring, “don’t you think 36 tomato plants might yield a tad more Big Boys than we could possibly eat in one season?”
“You can never have enough tomatoes!” was his response, “besides; you can make things with any surplus and then you could can them!”
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Just what kinds of things did you have in mind that I could just whip up and can?”
“Well, there’s stewed tomatoes, ketchup, salsa, and tomato sauce – that sort of thing.”
Before I had a chance to say I didn’t know how to make that sort of thing, the first 100 tomatoes were ripe and ready for picking.
On a beautiful summer day the children were down for their afternoon nap and I was excited to try my hand at cooking something new. Now, since I had no idea what I was actually doing, I yanked out of my unconscious what I had heard you do with a bumper crop of tomatoes - “you cook ‘em down.”
One hour, two hours, three hours later, the sauce still resembled four pots of red food-colored water. I stirred the pot and added a little salt. Now for the taste test – yuk, disgusting! Maybe it just needs to simmer some more. I was nervous now and hot, damn hot. I thought, “I wish we could have afforded air-conditioning.” I decided right then to take a quick shower and think under the cool water about a Plan B since Plan A for that tomato sauce was failing miserably.
“Tomato juice! I shouted out before the conditioner hit my head. Then I’ll add a little vodka and horseradish to disguise the taste, plunk in a tall crisp stalk of celery, a couple of olives, a hand-full of ice cubes and there you go!” I was pumped.
That’s also when the kids woke up.
“Mommy! Mommy! There’s a fire in the kitchen!”
I bolted from the shower, grabbed a bath towel to wrap my nakedness, and sprinted down the hall. As my wet feet slid up to the kitchen stove like Pete Rose in the ninth inning, my vocal cords unleashed, “Oh my God I left the dish towel too close to the burner!” With my kids standing there wide-eyed and horrified I ripped off the bath towel like a cheap stripper and started smacking the burning dish towel with it yelling FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
A few hours later I stared at the sizeable hole left in the countertop by the fire. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled a little, too, thinking how attempting to cook the tomato sauce actually made me feel like a true farmer’s wife; the kind of wife they write about in almanacs; the kind of wife guys would want to take home to mamma. Then, when I came back down to earth and recalled that hysterical scene which just went down, I thought to myself “come on, Mary Jane, what kind of decent man would really want to have to explain to his mother about a naked woman dancing around the kitchen yelling fire no matter what she was doing?”
That’s when I decided to sneak the partially cooked tomatoes back into the compost heap and take the experience as a day in the life of a rookie farmer’s wife in search of using the perfect tomatoes for the non-so-perfect tomato sauce.
Published in The Sandpaper, March 25, 2015