This past week we finally had a frost. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather forecast and spent a late afternoon harvesting green, pink, and almost-red tomatoes—quite a few of them. As I picked, I thought about Henry’s aunt Ada, who lived with us the last year of her life. I’ve written a book of meditations on that year, and keep contemplating publishing it…but somehow that hasn’t happened yet.
Today, however, I thought I’d share one of those meditations, as it also has to do with green tomatoes. I hope you enjoy it!
In preparation for moving from one home to another last fall, we had to dismantle our garden before the first frost. As she so often did, Ada joined me and wanted to help out. I gave her the project of picking all the tomatoes that were showing any blush of red. I focused on the large green ones, with visions of green tomato relish and fried green tomatoes making me salivate. Together we filled a couple of cardboard box lids, after which I began to uproot the plants themselves. Ada wanted to keep going, to pick the dozens of cherry-size green tomatoes as well. I encouraged her, figuring it would keep her busy. In my mind it was make-work, because I didn’t think those tomatoes were large enough to amount to anything.
We ended up with four full box lids of tomatoes, thoroughly mixed—large and small, green and half-ripe—which found a home on a shelf unit in our new garage, covered with newspapers to let those half-ripened tomatoes finish their work. Over the ensuing weeks my intentions for frying and canning green tomatoes fell victim to the realities of unpacking boxes and getting settled. I did dip into the box lids, though, every few days, to pull what had ripened for use in sandwiches and salads. Eventually I ended up roasting dozens of the cherry-size tomatoes because we could not keep up with them otherwise. No matter how green they were when picked, they ripened, perhaps encouraged by their larger neighbors. Many of those tiny roasted tomatoes ended up on our Thanksgiving appetizer platter—every one of them a gift I would have left behind if not for Ada’s companionship that day.
So now I ponder: did I disregard the imperfect and immature because I am fortunate enough to live with abundance? Did Ada reach for those green tomatoes because she was a teenager during the Great Depression and remembered, at a visceral level, how much each small bite of food was worth? I never went hungry growing up—unless I refused the food that was presented to me at the dinner table. I also cannot count the number of times that my mother said we needed to clean our plates because of the “starving Armenians.” I didn’t know who those Armenians were, or why they were starving, but I did grow up knowing that it was tantamount to a crime to waste food. I remember Henry’s comment, when we set up our new compost bin a couple of months ago, that he had been feeling guilty for wasting all the vegetable trimmings and eggshells that we had been throwing into the trash.
Recently the Food Network aired a television special featuring two teams competing to create the best gourmet meal constructed entirely from food destined for the trash. The waste of food that they encountered is appalling. How did we get to the point that we will not accept any apple less than “perfect”? Every one of us is clearly as imperfect as our fabled foremother Eve, who was tempted by the snake to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden.
The abundance of food in America has also led to a disregard for its unseen attributes, and for its impact upon the human body. The food making our teenagers obese is filled with chemicals and preservatives so that our convenience culture can distance itself even further from the sources of its own sustenance, and shortcut the time needed to transform the raw materials into a meal. Inner-city children being exposed for the first time to a school garden are horrified by the fact that a carrot grows in the dirt. That dirt, to them, is more dangerous than the chemicals in the snack cake they bought at the corner convenience store on the way home from school.
Fortunately, it appears that the urge to garden, to return to our roots—dirty as they are—is growing in America today. Schools and community open spaces are providing opportunities for gardening to children and adults who have no experience or understanding of growing plants for food. We can hope that they will see the imperfection in their own fruits and be willing to tolerate it there, as well as in the imperfect humans with whom they share the adventure.