One of my favorite things in my garden right now are the yellow tomatoes. I want to be clear: I don’t like to eat fresh tomatoes. You can barrage me with comments about the joy of biting into a fresh tomato: the tangy yet sweet taste, the burst of juicy goodness, the ecstasy of the whole experience. You can label me as simply naive, assuming that the only tomato I have ever sampled was one of the plastic ones purchased in the supermarket. You can wax poetic about the superiority of homegrown tomatoes, and advise me to let no more than a few seconds lapse between the time the tomato is plucked from the vine until the time I take that ecstatic first bite. Try what you will, my view will not change. I don’t like fresh tomatoes.
I’m not sure why I don’t like tomatoes. I think it is a texture thing. But I have never liked tomatoes. I had a friend in college who also didn’t like tomatoes, and we became allies in defending our dislike to our other friends. Imagine how I felt, then, when I visited her a couple of years ago and heard her using words which would have been blasphemy ten years before: “Well, I tried one a couple of years ago, and I found that they’re really not that bad…” I felt so betrayed after she said that. So betrayed, and so alone.
I do appreciate a good tomato sauce. When I was single and living on my own, a kind woman in my church offered me tomatoes from her abundant garden. I did not have the heart to explain to her my dislike of the fruit, so I accepted them. And then, they kept coming. Finally, I told my then-girlfriend about my problem. She came over one Sunday afternoon and proceeded to cook the tomatoes, which were by then taking over my refrigerator, down into a pasta sauce I can still remember. It was amazing: rich and meaty, but still light and pleasantly spiced. I could tell you that sauce didn’t influence my decision to ask her to marry me a couple of months later, but I would be lying.
Since then, we have planted at least one or two tomato plants in our yard almost every year. These days, we tend to plant the smaller varieties of tomato, the cherry or grape sized ones, rather than the larger ones which are better for making sauce, because we have a little boy living in our house who eats tomatoes like they are candy. In the past couple of years, it has been almost as exciting for me as it is for him when I can tell him in the evening that I saw an almost-ripe tomato on the vine earlier in the day. He dashes out the back door, looks intently in the garden, and usually comes back with a fruit in his hand and a proud smile on his face. If there are two ripe tomatoes, he musters all the generosity a five-year-old can show and assigns one to be eaten by his mom while he puts the other one by his place at the supper table. I love that boy.
This year, we almost didn’t have any tomatoes. The season was getting late last spring, and we had not done any planning for our vegetable garden. The time I had to work in the yard was filled with spreading mulch on the front flower bed, cleaning up the rotting remains of our perennials which were never removed last fall, and fussing over the daylillies in hopes that my efforts to improve the soil they live in would result in the first good blooming season since I first got them several years ago. One day while we were at one of the big-box home improvement stores we shop at now and then (please don’t judge us), we picked up a few bell pepper plants and one, lonely grape tomato.
Soon afterwards, we received the late-night telephone call telling us that my wife’s mother had passed away. We got on the road right away, and the vegetable garden was abandoned for more important matters. By the time we came home and settled back into a routine, the grape tomato was struggling to survive, and I did not have a chance to go out and get some more. Then, a week or so later, I had a message one night from a member of our church. She had been given more extra heirloom tomato plants than she could use, and she wanted to know if we wanted to share in her abundance. Who could say no to that kind of offer? I went over to her house that evening to pick up four plants: one producing a chocolate brown fruit, another producing something more pink, and two producing small, yellow tomatoes. I was particularly excited about the yellow ones, since my son has declared yellow to be his favorite color every time he has been asked for the past two or three years.
Things have not been pretty for the poor tomatoes in our vegetable garden since then. About a month after putting the plants in the ground, I finally got around to pulling the weeds, working in some compost, and spreading some pine straw to insulate the roots from the harsh summer heat. I think I was a little late, though. The plant from the big-box store sputtered out one or two fruits before it shriveled up and died. The brown and pink heirloom varieties have grown some but not produced any fruit. But we have had one or two yellow tomatoes a week from each of our two vines of that variety.
And every time I tell my son that he should look for some ripe yellow tomatoes to have with our supper, I am reminded of some important things. I am reminded that my wife makes a darn fine spaghetti sauce, and that I am lucky that she is willing to make it for me. I am reminded that a five-year-old can teach me something about excitement and generosity. And I am reminded that, despite the betrayal of my college friend who allowed herself to be swayed by the other side, I am never, in fact, alone. Sometimes life and death get in the way of the sources of our wonder-filled excitement, loving generosity, and delicious flavor. But when that happens, likely as not, someone will send a message about abundance and sharing, and I will be invited to pick up a unique gift.
Thanks be to God.