Thursday, August 18, 2011

Local tomatoes

Vine-ripe tomatoes (even the green ones, a zebra type, are fully ripe) destined for the sauce pot

From age 12 to 26, I lived on the Gulf coast of Florida. For most of that time I was about an hour south of Tampa, in farm country. The entrance to my parents’ new housing development faced cow pasture; continuing past the development away from the highway, railroad tracks crossed the road and beyond that, within a mile of the house, the road went to dirt.The area developed rapidly. By the time I moved out at 18, the road was paved all the way to the turn off to my friend’s house: a golf course had gone up, just past the railroad tracks. When I took my partner to Florida several years ago, he wanted to see an alligator. A large specimen, spotted in the national park, while at excitingly close range, laid too still to engender much awe in the Yankee. One night, we drove past the golf course in a thunderstorm. Inching along the road in a total downpour, windshield wipers on maximum speed, we stopped just short of a small alligator crossing the road. It lashed its tail menacingly at us before continuing on its way to the golf course. Now he was impressed.

Living in rural Florida was strange, to a family of Italian-Americans from Long Island. We ventured out as a group at first, and like Americans in a foreign land, sought out the familiar, however debased the local version. Rural Floridian pizza is soundly disappointing, and not even available by delivery. On weekends, we went to the beach and the laundromat. In the evening, showered and sunburned, the whole family snuck candy into the dollar theater. “My Cousin Vinny” had us roaring in recognition of ourselves.

A quarter mile down the road from our new home, I picked wild oranges and ate them. Despite warnings of sour wild fruit, I found they were sweet, and savored the exotic flavor of orange juice, hot from the sun. Two more miles by bicycle on dirt roads took me to my closest friend’s door. Her family kept goats, and her brother slept in a trailer parked in the yard. Several of my friends were distressingly poor. I learned quickly that some of the students in my middle school didn’t speak English, and some didn’t even speak Spanish, only Quechua. They disappeared before the school year ended, the children of migrant workers.

Our area’s principal agricultural products were dairy, oranges, and tomatoes. On the school bus into town, we passed the tomato packing plant where some of my classmates’ parents worked. Later, as a student assistant on an agricultural research extension farm, I experienced the “lite” version of farm labor, picking small fields of tomatoes that my boss grew in order to report differences among the cultivars. I learned that tomatoes grow in hands, ripening from the bottom hand up, so that as we picked the same field subsequent times, the ripe tomatoes grew higher.

This zebra tomato is striped dark and light green; the light green color on a typical red (when ripe) tomato indicates that the fruit is mature, and will ripen off the vine. The dry cracks visible on this fruit are another common attribute of heirloom varieties that has been bred out of commercially grown tomatoes.

I learned a trick for removing the stubborn green stain that even Lava soap couldn’t touch: a green tomato, crushed with one's fingers works as a cleanser in the field. After picking, I helped grade tomatoes, watching them move through the apparatus of wide belts full of holes of different sizes, through which the tomatoes fell into chutes, and were collected in bushel buckets.

Vine-ripened paste tomatoes

We counted and weighed the fruit—I came to think of tomatoes more as fruit. Of course I already knew that botanically, a tomato is a fruit, but I came to know them well enough to understand they're like other fruit. The fruits of the garden are like tree fruits: sweet, and full of seeds. As they ripen, their color becomes brighter and the flesh softer, and the seeds become more easily separated from the flesh.

Tomatoes grew so thick on the vine at my farm’s unlimited u-pick this week, I marveled that anyone had any trouble finding them. Yet I heard people giving directions to one another on where to look. I collected about ten pounds of tomatoes in two yards of row, all within a foot of the earth. Later pickings won’t be this abundant. Living in Florida, I saw surplus tomatoes dumped into cow pastures, and the cattle eating them contentedly.

As a young newlywed, I brought home buckets of tomatoes from the farm where I worked and turned them into sauce. All of my female relatives who made their own used canned, so working with fresh fruit was an experiment. Simmering the sauce all day is ritual, and utterly essential. Canned tomatoes are already skinned: you can blanch and then shock fresh tomatoes with cold water to loosen the skins, or roast the tomatoes and allow them to cool so the skins can be plucked out before simmering them into sauce. At the end of the day, an immersion blender will fix a lot of things.

Of the tomatoes I brought home, a few are clearly green. Kevin remarked on this but I assured him that they will ripen. The research farm where I worked duplicated the practices of conventional agriculture, including frequent spraying against pests, and picking the fruit while they were still “mature green”: a lighter shade that indicates the tomato will fully ripen off the vine, yet is firm enough to withstand transportation. Back in Palmetto, Florida, along the roadsides in tomato season, thrifty people collect green tomatoes that have fallen from dump trucks. Here in western Massachusetts, nearly all of my tomatoes were quite ripe. I trucked them home as carefully as I could on a bicycle, with no mishaps, and had discarded any tomatoes with cracked skins at the farm, but the next morning, I found a couple that had been squashed beyond usability at the bottom of my bags.

A couple of large heirloom tomatoes and a lot of paste tomatoes. A few are "mature green," and the rest are not yet fully ripe.

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