Let’s Cook: Tomatoes Can Ripen Family Connections
It no longer lodges the souls at our Underwood family home, rather it has become the resting place for my Ringo geranium. Weak and worn from steady use, the old wooden arm chair that once resided in our family recreation room now has taken a seat on our boulevard. Its cushions that my mom once upholstered in chartreuse green are gone, along with its maple finish. It arms are scared and marked by hands of little boys and their toys, and it now is held together with screws and brackets. (I suppose if it were human, it would have gone in for a knee replacement!) Yet she is still approachable and now sports a coat of latex paint that is called Lavender Inn. On her right side is a magazine holder; this is where our spring seed catalog always dwelled.
My dad would arrive home from work in his striped, blue bib overalls and settle in this port to read the daily newspaper. When he was finished reading, he would retract from the magazine holder the spring seed catalog. It is here I first learned of his love of tomatoes. My dad liked to start his tomatoes from seeds, and he had a passion for caring for them and watching them grow.
Like in many families, my Dad and I shared common interests but often enjoyed our own unique ideas and hobbies. Early on I realized that spending time with my dad in the garden was an experience to be enjoyed. He laughed, smiled, and taught me how to pull weeds (“you better get the root”) in the plot of dirt east of our home. We poured our souls into that garden where he had planted raspberry bushes to stand guard on the east side.
He and my mother often spent time here after supper, and I enjoyed being with them in the warm evening light. My Dad’s main interest was the tomatoes, and my Mom managed the rest of the garden. This plot of land has now has become lawn, but every time I see it, the memories of yellow squash blossoms, rows of onions and my Dad’s tomatoes emerge. Our ability to recall moments like this has to be one of the most beautiful compensations of this world. It has been over 40 years since I first knelt in this garden with them, but when I pass this tract of land their voices are as fresh as the raspberries we once picked there.
This spring, Jan and Lydia planted the tomatoes. Each of them has a plot of its own. We daily walk past these growing plants, water them, and encourage them to keep growing. Lydia loves tomatoes-always has-and I recall her sitting in her high chair with two hemispheres of fiery red in each hand, taking turns on enjoying their cool, refreshing completeness that the star of our summer garden brings. A river of carroty juice running down her chin, getting her bib stained, and we as parents knowing that getting a new car could not compare to this moment.
Lydia’s eyes were big when I mentioned to her that botanically the tomato is a fruit, but it was legally classified a vegetable on May 10, 1893 in the United States by the Supreme Court. This was on the basis that it is “usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as desserts.” I am sure that getting such high attention even made the tomato blush!
We love to let tomatoes ripen on the vine, but sometimes they take a resting place on the back step which gives them plenty of warm sun. Back in Underwood, tomatoes that fell off the vine we carried to “tomato patio” the top of our picnic table where they bathed in the sun until ripe. My dad taught me to collect the tomatoes in a cardboard flat and never stack tomatoes! Folks in North Dakota have a hunger for that first vine-ripened tomato-probably because we have gone for months limping by on not-vine- ripened tomatoes. Ron C. Smith, Professor Emeritus, Department of Plant Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo, has shared several times on Prairie Public Radio during his gardening tip program the pleasure of eating the first vine ripened tomato. His description of this moment, as I have been driving along listening, has my Jeep smelling like fresh tomatoes inside and outside the window there was still snow on the ground!
This proves the power that tomatoes can have on us. The tomato has indeed earned its place in the sun, and the connection of a father and son now has been passed on to another generation.
2 ripe tomatoes
cup sour cream
cup grated Gruyere or American cheese
2 tablespoons dill
2 tablespoons chives
teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
8 thin slices of white bread
2 eggs beat with cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
Peel, seed and cut the tomatoes into inch slices. In a bowl combine sour cream and cheese along with dill, chives, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Trim the crusts from bread slices and butter one side of each slice. Spread the sour cream mixture on the buttered side of the 4 slices, leaving a inch border, and top each slice with slices of tomato. Arrange the remaining bread slices buttered sides down on the tomatoes and press them down slightly.
In a shallow dish, beat eggs with milk and season with salt and pepper, if you desire, and dip both sides of the sandwiches in the mixture. Letting them soak for a few seconds. In a large heavy skillet, saute the sandwiches in 3 tablespoons of melted butter for 2 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown. Drain the sandwiches on paper towels, cut them into fourths and serve them hot with even more tomatoes.
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