Only two things money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes
Apparently, as a tomato farmer, I peaked in my teen years. The summer I was thirteen, I was promoted to Head of Tomato Production on my parents’ farm and believed I was at last being recognized for my smarts and responsibility. Tomatoes were a staple on the table and a huge part of the winter inventory in the pantry. My ego would only come into check weeks later on a hot, sweaty morning when I realized I was the entire labor force. Neither position would prove to be lucrative. All of my brothers and sisters had gotten married, moved out of the house, and were raising small children, so my merits weighed less than the fact that I was the last man standing.
“This year, we are going to do things different,” Daddy said as we stood at the edge of the field, the sharp border where the backyard ended. “It’s going to be nice and neat. After you get the plants in the ground, you need to put a tobacco stick in between every plant. Then, when the plants start growing, you’re going to get the bailing twine and start stringing up under the leaves of the plant, all the way up.”
“Hm.” I considered protesting, but experience told me there were no labor rights in this organization.
“Go on,” Daddy said. “Don’t be messing around.”
One afternoon a few weeks later, he showed up with his pickup truck loaded with bales of wheat straw for me to tuck under the leaves to keep the just-forming globes from touching the ground and rotting. There would be weeds to chop, manure and other fertilizers to apply, and of course, a liberal dusting of Sevin for the hornworms and stink bugs and aphids.
This project was serious business. In a “garden” that covered acres, the allotment for tomatoes was three dozen plants. My dreams of an air-conditioned summer spent reading James Bond novels and an assortment of Time-Life series ranging from the Civil War to World War II and playing as much ball as possible evaporated into the already wet blanket, gnat-infested late spring/early summer of eastern North Carolina.
I dreaded the work. But all—or most—of the whining I did inside my head and the complaining under my breath went away when Mama used her worn, wooden-handled butcher’s knife to slice a Corvette-red tomato the size of softball. Juice dripped all over her calloused hands onto the plate and cream-colored formica counter, as one perfect, thin slice after another mounded. Soon enough, as I took a bite of the first tomato sandwich of the summer, the sweat, my cut up hands, and the bug bites fell away to the best taste of the farm. After all, there is nothing like a homegrown tomato.
The best use of a homegrown tomato is in a sandwich, and the classic tomato sandwich of my youth was very simple, a quick, easy and satisfying meal, usually lunch. Two super-soft slices of Merita white bread were liberally slathered in Duke’s Mayonnaise. Thin slices of dripping red tomatoes, waiting patiently on a plate, having been salt and peppered and dashed with White House apple cider vinegar were piled on as high as the sandwich maker dared. Manners might dictate that a sandwich be eaten on a plate, but often they were consumed over the kitchen sink. A proper tomato sandwich will leak and spill and splatter, and a really good one might require the consumer to change shirts when done, unless there was foresight to tuck a dish towel into the shirt collar.
There were simple rules to sandwich construction. Never toast the bread and never use any mayo besides Duke’s. There is something about the creamy tanginess of that brand that simply can’t be touched, and just about every Southerner swears by it. Variations and experiments on the tomato sandwich were and are allowed, of course. Bacon and lettuce are the king and queen of tomato sandwich royalty.
I’ve added twists to the tomato sandwich over the years. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or balsamic or rice vinegar can give an exotic feel. Sea salt or Himalayan salt can add some texture. In our current low-carb driven world, substitutes like flax-based Joseph pita bread work just fine, but usually need to be folded over instead of pocketed, due to the saturation of juice and vinegar and oil and Duke’s. Regardless, a piece of bread has to be saved to sop up the puddled goodness left in the plate at the end of the meal.
Mayonnaise is a territorial subject, but across the South, Duke’s is a dominant player—a brand that is over 100 years old. Until 2006, Duke’s came in a glass jar with a yellow label and a black badge proclaiming the name in white script. It’s remained basically the same, true to the simple idea of its matriarch and underappreciated inventor.
Eugenia Thomas of Columbus, Georgia, married Thomas Duke in 1900. The couple moved to Greenville, South Carolina shortly afterwards. During World War I, when nearby Camp Sevier National Guard Training Center got busy, Eugenia began selling chicken salad, pimento cheese, and egg salad sandwiches for ten cents each. Her creations were so good that for years after the war, soldiers wrote her for recipes. She opened Duke’s Tea Room inside the Ottaday Hotel in Greenville and sold sandwiches in local drugstores.
In 1923, her top salesman convinced Duke that it was her tangy mayonnaise that made her sandwiches special, and that she should shift her focus her homemade dressing. She sold her sandwich business and set up production in an old coach factory. By 1929, Duke could barely keep up with demand for her product and subsequently sold the company to family-owned C.F. Sauer Company in Richmond, giving the brand nationwide distribution. Duke later started Duchess Sandwich Company on the west coast, making her one of the most successful businesswomen of the early twentieth century who started three companies that have all survived more than one hundred years.
It’s hard to describe what makes Duke’s so good. The ingredients are similar to most other brands, but something happens when it is combined with a tomato that can’t be matched. Perhaps there is a chemical reaction beyond my understanding, but the juice of a bursting ripe tomato drips and mixes and makes the most perfect dressing that sometimes has people licking plates or dipping their fingers into the mix to get the last taste.
Or so I’ve heard.
Despite years of growing tomatoes, something odd happens to the grower when the small fruits first appear. There is a strong desire to pick one before it is ready. It’s a combination of anticipation, impatience, and paranoia about bugs or disease or splitting or rotting or something that almost always makes the less disciplined farmer too eager for the first wave of tomatoes. As a matter of fact, I’m sure this is how fried green tomatoes got their start—someone just couldn’t wait, and didn’t want to waste the tomatoes, but couldn’t eat them. When all else fails in the Southern kitchen, there is one surefire fix. Coat whatever it is in a light dusting of flour and throw it in some hot oil. It works not just for tomatoes, but also for squash, eggplant, zucchini, and okra, among other sometimes-questionable vegetables.
Tomato plants grow quickly, especially when there is plenty of rain. After the initial installation of the old tobacco sticks—a piece of 2×2 wood that was used to hold stitched-on tobacco leaves for curing—my work was just beginning. Every week or so as the plants climbed and spread, I added another row of twine. Daddy offered regular critiques of my work, often less than tender, and sometimes with “dammit” attached. On a day I was particularly inept, “dumbass” might be added. Looking back, it bothered me more then that it does now, as I was too anxious to get done and get on to something else and “Tighten up that string,” or “Don’t let those bottom tomatoes touch the ground”—he could see my faults from edge of the yard all the way down the row, even when the fruits were the same color as the plants. I’d learn much later the value and importance of this advice. When the straw bales arrived, I cut them apart with my pocketknife, and spread bunches both as a protective mulch at the base of the plants, and to keep the low-hanging fruit off the ground and out of rot.
The old bailing twine we had was not like the coated, smooth, plasticky stuff of today. It was more like small rope, stringy and rough, and it would work my hands over, dealing out small cuts and rope burn when pulled too tight or twisted.
A lot of work went into those tomatoes on our farm. It seemed also that a lot of money did too, and being a naïve, but all-knowing teenager at the time, that summer I wondered why we just didn’t buy tomatoes at the grocery store like most everyone else—but at that stage in my life, my experience with store-bought tomatoes was limited to the salad bars at Pizza Inn and Western Sizzlin’. Who knew what they really tasted like, buried under a cascading waterfall of Catalina dressing?
Supermarket tomatoes are known for blandness, and there are a number of reasons for this. Tomatoes that are mass-produced have been hybridized and genetically modified to be resistant to disease, pests, and travel conditions so that there’s just not much taste left. Marketing has led to “vine-ripened” designations on shelves, with stems still attached to imply they are fresh off the vine. Almost all grocery store tomatoes are selected to be uniform in size and shape and the outer skin must be perfect.
Many homegrown tomatoes are hybrids as well. We mostly planted hybrids called Better Boys or Beefmasters. The immediacy of harvest offers a freshness that makes them superior, just like most vegetables, when they go from field to table in a matter of minutes.
The very best tomatoes are the heritage varieties or heirloom tomatoes. those plants that haven’t been mixed and matched and remain basically the same as they were one hundred years ago. Heritage varieties are the luxury cars of tomatoes. They are far from uniform, and to be honest, can be ugly as sin, misshapen and imperfect in appearance. Much like people, it is what’s on the inside of a tomato that truly sets it apart and makes it special. I’ve experimented with growing Brandywines and Box Car Willies and Mortgage Lifters—all delicious, but I’ve yet to find one more tasty or peculiar looking than the Purple Cherokee, the Rolls Royce of heirlooms. The skin is an amalgam of green, red, black, and purple and the fruit often grows wide more than round. The Purple Cherokee is the top-of-the-line, religious experience tomato, full of flavor, a perfect balance of sweetness and acid, soft, little to no hardness or a bitter core, dripping with juice, and not too many seeds, easy on the system to those prone to reflux. The perfect tomato.
Elementary school kids everywhere get excited upon finding out that tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. This seems contrary considering tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, which includes eggplants and peppers, and unlike fruits, grow in a garden, not on trees in an orchard.
This designation has an interesting and very American backstory. In 1883, the United States placed a tariff on imported vegetables, but not fruits. The Nix family of New York filed a case against the collector of the port at New York, using that fruit designation to help keep the price of tomatoes down.
Tomato plants originated in South America and were brought to Spain with the conquistadors in the 1600s. The plants didn’t really catch on in Europe until the nineteenth century, but shortly after the Declaration of Independence, records appear of tomato growing by the colonists. Thomas Jefferson recorded growing tomatoes in 1781. Maybe if I’d known that as a teenager it would have helped inspire me. It should have been in those biographies I was itching to get back to, literally and figuratively, as I bent over plants, wiping sweat and swatting insects.
There is a lot involved in growing tomatoes. Secrets are made and kept regarding planting times, fertilizer, pest control, times of day to water. One summer, Daddy and his best friend got into a feud over a tomato controversy, although I can’t recall the details, other than one accused the other of cheating or sabotage. They went about a month without speaking and never seemed to fully get over it.
Planting and stringing the tomatoes was just the beginning. In eastern North Carolina, there is much soil quality variation, not just from farm to farm, but even on the same plot of land. In my younger years, much of our small acreage was planted with tobacco and later hay and soybeans. One plot, on the backside of my parents’ simple home was set aside for the garden, which heavily featured corn, sweet potatoes, string beans (we called them “snaps”), and butter beans, in addition to the tomatoes. The soil nearest the road was hard and heavily weighted with orange clay, but within just a few rows, it changed over to rich ash-to-black loamy soil. Every spring, when it was turned over for the first time, the soil felt soft and lush as I pulled up double handfuls and let it sift through my hands onto my bare feet. There was a moistness and fine grain to it, something special, a distinct aroma that even to this day I have a hard time putting to words—at once clean and musky and pleasing to the senses. Usually, all sorts of flying insects hovered just above the soil, dancing in their own celebration of spring. The ground smelled like it was ready to grow something.
In those days, I never lingered for long, sometimes taking a few minutes to build a frog house or two by packing dirt around my pushed-together feet and then carefully removing them.
After the tomatoes were in the ground, I’d drag several linked-together water hoses attached to the backdoor spigot to the edge of the field. The rows were neatly furrowed by Daddy after several passes on the rusting red 1940s Farmall, ending at a small two-track before the neighbors’ fenced-in cow pasture. That was the job I coveted, but later, when I finally got my chance, I realized that I’d underestimated the old man’s precision and skill. Nice, pushed up hills were ready for plants, and allowed water to run down the gently sloping rows. I typically watered right after supper until the edge of dark, just enough time for the well’s current to reach the end of the row. We skipped watering only on days when thunderstorms offered relief, and the plants grew tall and lush and deep green. They produced yellow flowers, each representing a future delicious tomato, and attracting pollinating bees, which were essential, but were a hazard at harvest. The plants embraced the oppressive heat that I spent much effort to avoid.
Tomatoes offer a pungent fragrance that stays with you upon touch, much like basil—a mix of rain, fresh flowers, and tart fruit, pleasing and foretelling of the goodness to come.
I was up early each morning to pick. In the first few days, I could usually fit the day’s haul in an old red, metal egg basket, but soon, I had to lug woven cane bushel baskets with thin metal handles down the row. The baskets were sturdy, but the heavy gauge wire cut into my hands as the basket filled with dense, heavy fruits.
Picking tomatoes is not as simple as it sounds. Once they were mostly red, it was time to come off the vine. Waiting a day could be ruinous due to bugs, rot, or splitting. It was important to pick and leave the stem in place. This is where tomato-ists deviate about when the time is right to pick. Many people let the tomato fully ripen to a deep red on the vine. Ours were often so large they broke the plants if left them on too long, so I picked them when they were “mostly” red, and hauled them to the two picnic tables in the backyard. The tables stood in the shade one of the large, ancient pecan trees. I carefully sorted by ripeness, stem down, to allow them to finish ripening.
Critics will say that tomatoes will rot if left to ripen this way. Others suggest putting tomatoes in a brown paper bag to let them finish. All of this may be true, but the sheer volume dictated my strategy, and relatively few were lost. By the height of the season, I had two picnic tables and all four benches covered in stem-down tomatoes, all in various stages of ripening.
My sisters would come from their homes to help Mama, and they spent days at the time canning tomatoes in quart jars, peeling and boiling an enormous inventory that would end up as spaghetti sauce or soup or base for Sunday beef roasts. The work didn’t stop until each of them had enough for their families for the year. Most every night of the summer, we ate sliced tomatoes soaked in vinegar and dusted with salt and pepper, served as a side dish, or combined with cucumbers and fresh green onions, all from the garden. Sometimes, the tomatoes were stewed, dished into bowls later to be topped with crushed saltines.
Mama’s soup was the best, probably because it had everything imaginable included. Ground hamburger, stringed chicken, pasta, every vegetable we grew, all floating in a rich, tangy tomato base. Salt, pepper, and sugar were added to tame the acidity, and sometimes a bay leaf. It was best for a winter lunch, but always a treat, during the high traffic days of Mama’s kitchen, no matter the time of day, I never saw anyone ever turn down a bowl. They usually asked for seconds.
I spent so much time in the field growing up, I swore I’d escape the hardship. I’d use farmer’s markets and stores instead when I became an adult. I wouldn’t be old fashioned, growing tomatoes in a garden. That didn’t last long. It wasn’t just about taste, though, it was more than that. A call to work the land, to stay true to tradition, pulls hard, and that life I wanted to get away from wouldn’t let me go. There is a pride that comes from growing one’s own food—250 years of turning the North Carolina soil in my family’s past had set roots.
My recent efforts at growing tomatoes have not gone well. After getting married and moving out to my own place on the farm, given to us as a wedding present by my parents, my success was mixed. This was in the 1990s, and I had less time and there seemed to be more work involved. I planted a row in the ground next to the house with peppers and tomatoes, but my yields were a joke compared to my parents. I tried for years, on and off. Even with poor results, I couldn’t resist. I tried raised beds, sure I’d get great results in a smaller, controlled space. Bugs, disease, rotting, splitting, and defects showed otherwise. I tried container growing. I changed plant varieties. I used newspaper shreds as mulch, in place of hay.
Is the memory of my successes a generation back real or imagined? I wonder if I have idealized the time and the results. It is a fact that I picked hundreds of tomatoes, if not more, and everyone could see the Mason jars that filled the pantry. Remembrances have emerged and I recall throwing many, many rotten tomatoes into the pasture, much to the pleasure of the grazing cows. The results were real, and I now realize that the oversight of my parents, their knowledge and wisdom, which I was sure as a teenager I didn’t need, was the difference. Their love and guidance, and their corrections held me to a standard that at the time, I wouldn’t have set for myself.
Hope and optimism abounds among my crop this year. Following a discouraging past season where I attempted only four plants, volunteers from those Purple Cherokees appeared, nearly a dozen. Last year’s disappointment literally became this year’s potential. We’ve used containers and newspapers and coffee grounds and a mix of the farm and “store bought dirt” to compensate for our mostly clay-side of the old farm. The heart of summer is approaching and there are dozens of tomatoes of various sizes hanging among our plants.
This year, I brought my two young sons into the effort this year. The legacy of growing and producing food, and farming, built over two centuries, is more fragile than I ever considered as a teenager. It can disappear in a single generation, as has been proven. Like so many things, that passed me by, what I thought would remain forever has passed. And yet, things look promising. We won’t can or freeze any tomatoes, but hopefully soon, we will be flush in sandwiches, soups, and homemade salsa.
A longtime family friend has a tomato business nearby, just outside the county seat of Nashville. He grows his crop in water, a process called hydroponics, an idea that would have garnered gap-mouthed wonder in my childhood. The tomatoes are delicious, far better than anything available in a store. They are a great stop-gap, but even in their goodness, they can’t top a homegrown tomato, in my dirt-stained hand, or in my mind.
Michael K. Brantley is an award-winning journalist and photographer and the author of two books, a memoir, Memory Cards: Portrait from a Rural Journey and Galvanized: The Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate, forthcoming in the spring of 2020 from the University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, about Wright Batchelor, who fought in both armies during the Civil War, walked halfway across the country, and was involved in a bizarre postwar murder. Brantley has published nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in numerous journals including The Broad River Review, The First Day, The Dunes Review, Word River, Bartleby Snopes, Stymie, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Communications at Barton College and an Archie K. Davis Fellow.