Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Tomato Man

            Fall has arrived, and I've turned the calendar page to October, but where I live, in coastal Texas, the thermometer has not received the news. Humid days in the 80s linger along with our summer wardrobes. And so, there's still time to visit the Tomato Man.           
            His place sits on a patch of land outlined by a chain-link fence. "Muh Daddy was born in a tent on this land," he reports with obvious pride. His family has lived here for generations in this community camped on a spot along the western shore of Galveston Bay. A new subdivision, the kind with big houses cheaply built,  butt up against his back fence-line. His children live nearby but have jobs outside of the family business, a business selling tomatoes, flea treatment, and random offerings, run out of a metal building. To know the selection, you have to drive by the gate. There, attached to the fence or propped on the ground, he posts the names of the day's bounty written in magic marker on cut-up cardboard boxes. "Watermelons," the sign, bearing a drawing of a watermelon slice, might read in high summer; the red-marker fruit outlined in green-marker and decorated with black-marker-drawn seeds. "Cantalopes," the misspelled sign sometimes reads; "Fresh Shrimp," caught from nearby waters at other times. If the gate is open, you can go on in. Outside the building's open, bay doors, peppers grow in plastic pots, the kind the garden centers sell them in. Other miscellaneous plants grow huge in the same-type pots; far bigger than they should be without replanting. The questions of "Why?" and "Are they for sell?" hang in the air, unasked. A cat will come, eye you in the way only cats can, and then, if you are deemed worthy, rub against your leg. The man's wife, adorned with blonde-dyed, permed, and teased hair, perches on a stool behind a counter in a room partitioned-off on one end of the cavernous space. The walls of the room are covered in fake-wood paneling, and shelves, bracketed to the walls, hold jars of home-made preserves, pickled vegetables, and relishes for sale. She plays Bejeweled on a computer while she waits for you to make your choice. "Come here," she beckons to my daughter and then shows the her the tricks of the game. Every one of her fingers, save her thumbs, are adorned with golden rings bearing their own jewels, all fake as the wood on the walls. She cackles in delight at sharing her favorite pastime with my daughter and then rings up the sale of fig preserves and pickled okra.

           But the best things offered for sale here are the tomatoes. Summer in the South means vegetables, and a good tomato is the Holy Grail of them all. (Yes, I know tomatoes are technically a fruit, but you wouldn't put one in a fruit salad, would you?" Now, you'll see "Vine-Ripe" tomatoes in the grocery store all year long, but whatever vine they ripened on wasn't anywhere close to the grocery store. The color is never truly red, but a mottled, dark pink.  And the taste? What taste? Then there is the "Hot House" variety - very red, but soft, with only some tomato flavor. No, nothing beats a freshly-picked-from-the vine, never-refrigerated tomato. The best way to eat one is to slice it thick, season with salt and pepper, and layer between two pieces of white bread spread with mayonnaise - homemade or Duke's or Hellmann's. This sandwich tastes best eaten over the kitchen sink to catch the juice while the sunlight streams in through white, eyelet curtains. Golden Flake potato chips make a nice accompaniment, and a glass of iced tea is a must. 

           You can grow your own tomatoes. If you have only a patio or balcony, tomatoes will grow just as well in pots as in the ground, but the weather has to be just right. The fruit sets when night temperatures are 50 to 70 degrees and days are 60 to 85 degrees. Tomatoes aren't happy when night temperatures climb above 72 and days soar above 92. The first summer I lived in Houston, night readings were never below 80, and the daytime temperature caused the mercury to boil. But somehow the Tomato Man has a bountiful, delicious crop to offer all summer long. And I especially "hanker for" (a Southern thing) a good tomato when the days are hot.

            I crave all sorts of vegetables when the temperature climbs. And each kind carries a special memory. I associate beans and peas with my grandmother's hot kitchen. While a box fan whirred in the nearby living room where the blinds were closed to block the sun's rays, we sat at the kitchen table shelling or snapping in preparation for a Sunday supper of beef roast and assorted vegetables accompanied by cornbread (not sweet) and tea (always sweet). When I think of summer squash, or Vidalia onions, or new potatoes, I picture farmer's markets with flies buzzing, fans blowing, and bins heaping with produce; the kind of produce that still has the soil it was grown in clinging to it.

           My favorite farmer's market is Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama. The Burris family grows on their nearby farm almost everything they sell, and if they don't grow it, someone else nearby does. My family would stop there on our way back from beach trips to Gulf Shores. Stand-up coolers offered plastic bags stuffed with varieties of shelled beans and peas.
Bins cradled piles of Chilton County peaches.

Shelves held jars of homemade jams & honey. Glass cases showcased loaves of fresh baked bread and pies. Pyramids of cantaloupes mounded on pallets and Sugar Baby watermelons balanced in crates.

And, of course, there were tomatoes - red ones for slicing and green ones for frying. We'd make our selections and stand in line among the other happy vegetablephiles (if it's not a word, it should be) while big fans blew our hair everywhere. Loaded down, we'd drive home to Birmingham and enjoy the abundance for days. 

             When I moved to Texas, land of wide-open spaces and the fertile Rio Grande Valley, I was surprised to find a dearth of farmers' markets when I was accustomed to a choice of roadside stands. I heard something about a market in downtown Houston, but that was 30 miles from my house in the suburbs. I couldn't find even one truck farmer parked on the side of a road with his bed loaded with produce. When I asked my neighbors about farmers' markets close by, I was told about one in a rural community. I made the 17-mile drive one afternoon in high summer only to find produce that wasn't as fresh as my local grocery store's offerings. And, to my utter horror, I spied shipping crates for their tomatoes - crates that had come all the way from California! In recent years, three farmers' markets have opened near my house to sell local produce, but only on Saturday mornings, and I'm not a get-up-and-out-the-door-early-Saturday-when-I've-worked-all-week-type-of-gal.

             I do hope that wherever you live, you have access to locally grown vegetables. And the best way to eat them is to have yourself a vegetable plate or even a meat-and-three. I do declare that there is no better meal than a plate heaped with the likes of boiled okra, new potatoes, lady peas, chow-chow relish, yellow crookneck squash sauteed with Vidalia onions, Silver Queen corn cut from the cob and boiled in its own milk, and fried green tomatoes served alongside sliced, red tomatoes and perfectly-golden cornbread that's been baked in an iron skillet. You can fix (the Southern verb for "prepare") this meal yourself, or, if you're fortunate, find a locally-owned restaurant, diner, or cafeteria that serves up such blessings. I remember, from my childhood, many meals eaten at my local mall's Britling Cafeteria where women in hairnets used metal tongs to pluck squash croquettes from steam trays and wielded serving spoons to plop macaroni and cheese on my plate. And if you're wondering, macaroni and cheese - God bless it - does count as a vegetable in the South.

              When I was all grown up and working at my first job in downtown Birmingham, I would often meet a friend for lunch at John's Restaurant - an old, family establishment where the sacred vegetable plate was served on melamine plates plopped on formica-topped tables scattered around the linoleum floor. Their specialty was slaw - but not your typical coarse-cut cabbage slathered in mayonnaise. At John's, a little, melamine, round bowl cradled tender, white, angel hair slaw, worthy of an angel's head, topped with their house-made slaw dressing - a tangy, orangey-red concoction that defies description or duplication. Alas, the restaurant was sold, remodeled, and is now a "City Diner," an over-priced, fancy place that serves things that are beer-battered or maple-glazed and wouldn't know a collard green from a cabbage. But you can read about the history of the slaw dressing here: and order it here: (Just passing that along - I don't get a commission!)
            And so I've shared my thoughts and memories of vegetables craved, coveted, and consumed. With locally-sourced food trendy now in restaurants, I hope you find some good, fresh vegetables, even if you can't find a farmers' market, or that you'll grow them yourself.  And as for me, I have the Tomato Man. But the summer is quickly drawing to a close, even here in coastal Texas. "Firewood" will soon be written on a cardboard sign outside the gate, but I have gas logs so I won't be stopping by - until next year - when the tomatoes are ripe and my daughter says, "Let's go to the Tomato Man!" The Tomato Man is old. I wonder what will happen to his place when he retires? In the meantime, God bless the Tomato Man.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

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