'Tis the time of year for Boys and Girls to wait on the sill

HAPPY EATER

August 09, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Money in the bank makes some folks feel secure. For others, a new convertible in the driveway gives them a feeling they have arrived. But for me, a sure sign that times are flush is having a row of tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill.

It means tomato days are here. These are days when the refrigerator overflows with dead-ripe tomatoes. These tomatoes are so ripe they leak, so filled with fluid that picking them up too quickly can make their skins burst, squirting their sweet juices all over your fingers.

During tomato days, the kitchen counter top is covered with fruit. These counter-top tomatoes are ripe, but are just short of leaking. They are tomatoes you would kill for in June. But now they are your second choice. When compared to the dead-ripe ones in the fridge, they seem a little hard, a little lacking in color. They need a day or so on the counter top to soften up.

The tomatoes lounging on the windowsill are evidence that the ** good life will continue.

In a couple of days, when they are soft and voluptuous, the windowsill tomatoes will be moved to the fridge, or maybe straight to the dinner table.

During tomato days, a house takes on a distinctive aroma as the Big Boys, Early Girls and Better Boys occupy the furniture. Once that tomato perfume is in the air, rising with the humidity, the pace of life slows. Tomato days move with languor, like a rivulet of juice meandering down your chin after you snack on ripe, red, Big Boys.

The best kind of tomatoes to have sitting on your windowsill are ones grown in your garden. Walking out in your garden and eating a ripe tomato, still warm from the afternoon sun and flavored with a little salt, is such a sensual pleasure it seems that it should be illegal.

In the tomato days of my youth, it was my duty to pluck and prowl the family's backyard tomato patch. I plucked the fruit that was deemed ripe. Early in the season a ripe tomato was reasonably red and came loose from the vine after a gentle twist.

But as the season wore on, standards changed. By mid-August, not only did a chosen tomato have to be redder than a fire truck, it virtually had to fall off the vine. Sometimes when a ripe one fell, it would take a few nearby pink tomatoes with it. The ripe ones and the split ones went straight to fridge; the pink ones took up residence on the windowsill.

I prowled the garden looking for predators. Occasionally I would spot a caterpillar or a cutworm, but my real nemesis was the dreaded blister beetle. According to garden legend, if this beetle pinched you, a large painful blister was the result.

While my dad fearlessly picked the beetles off the tomato plants with his bare hands, I didn't take chances. I wore gloves, even in 90-degree August heat.

These were the days before pesticides, and the recommended method of beetle eradication was dropping the critters in a Folgers coffee can filled with a little gasoline. As a kid, being entrusted with gasoline was a big deal. It was my belief that the hot August sun could ignite the gasoline. That, coupled with my fear that an especially ravenous beetle could somehow work his pincers around my gloves, made my tomato-patch toil exciting.

It also made the tomatoes seem more valuable. The tomatoes might be abundant. But bringing them out of the land of biting beetles and smoldering coffee cans into the safety of the windowsill was, I told myself, dangerous work.

Over the years, I have come up with several ways of identifying exceptional tomatoes. One is the cut-it-in-quarters test. You slice the tomato into four parts -- no more cutting is allowed -- and begin eating. If the fruit is so ripe that you can eat the whole thing -- everything except the stem -- then you have encountered one of nature's true tomatoes.

There is the I-can't-stop-myself test. This happens late in the meal, maybe even when everyone else has left the table. There are a few remaining slices of tomato left on the serving plate. You already have eaten enough tomatoes to make four bottles of ketchup. You probably will have tomatoes for breakfast, with scrambled eggs.

Nonetheless, the remaining slices look so red, so luscious, so inviting. You can't stop yourself. As you wipe the evidence from the corners of your mouth, you comfort yourself with the thought that it was a quality binge.

Sadly, I now can't pull any tomatoes in from my back yard. Several losing battles with blight and tired soil have forced me to put my plans for a backyard garden on hold, until I move my tomato patch to ground now regularly used by my kids.

So now when tomato days hit, I buy a basket of tomatoes from a farmer.

I stuff the ripes in the fridge. I scatter the ones that need a little softening out on the counter-tops.

And I put a row or two on the kitchen windowsills, just for status.

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