Tomato fanciers tell pulp fiction Essay: Gardeners think everyone loves what they grow and cheerfully come calling with the fruits of their labor. But one man runs for cover.

August 19, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

I've had enough tomatoes, please. I don't wish to be rude, but please, no more tomatoes. Please!

Turn a corner these days and somebody offers you tomatoes. "Grew 'em in my garden," they say with a contrived modesty that always fails to mask their overweening pride.

They look at you with that odd expression on their faces, a mixture of condescension and expectancy. They seem to be waiting for you to acknowledge their superiority and then anoint them with your gratitude. But I never know what to say, or do. Shake their hands? Give them a hug? Announce I intend to e-mail the miracle squad at the Vatican?

So I suck in my breath, and blither something like, "Oh, you grew them yourself. On your roof? How nimble! In one of your old pairs of shoes? My, what an inventive recycler you are. A credit to the planet."

I've had enough of this. It's the same every year. Come August and we're up to our tomatoes in tomatoes, and they just keep rolling in. Everybody's crop is bigger than last year's.

L People compare them; size matters. Size is all that matters.

Some of these tomato people must be sneaking down to the police horse stables and, like so many dung beetles, gathering ++ up that organic Miracle Gro in the stalls.

As a result of this diligence, they get bushels of the things, pecks, pints, quarts, gills, barrels, cords. They come in all at once, it seems, a tsunami of tomatoes, a true Red Tide!

Thus, every year they have far too many to consume themselves. So do they ever question the waste and immorality of this excessive production? The strain they impose on Mother Earth? Never. Instead, they bring them to work and try to foist them on the rest of us.

Do they ever bring peaches? No.

Endives? No.

Do they ever ask if we like tomatoes? Never.

Do they just assume that everybody likes tomatoes? Of course.

And it has gotten even worse: They've begun adding zucchini. That's right, zucchini. They seem to go together: tomatoes and zucchini. You can't have one without the other any more; it's unfulfilling, like Abelard without Heloise, Damon without Pythias, Heckle with no Jeckle.

Now, I'm not really sure what zucchini is. Admittedly, my childhood was short on the succulent vegetal delicacies, but I never remember feeling deprived for it, or turned up vitamin deficient. I never even saw a zucchini.

We grew radishes; we ate them with onions. Then we went off by ourselves for a time.

Zucchini no doubt came over later, from Italy. Eurotrash! The dubious rewards of the global economy. Zucchini's not a cucumber; it's not a pickle; it's neither fish nor fowl among vegetables, and you can have it. I don't want it!

You may by now suspect that all these suburban-bound or city dwelling part-time farmers have put me out of sorts with their immoderate passion for their own tomatoes. You are right.

If tomatoes are the finest fruit of agriculture, maybe we ought to re-examine the joys of hunting and gathering.

It's not so easy as you may think to express these thoughts. A lot of people, for reasons I fail to discern, really like tomatoes, or say they do. They celebrate tomatoes. They have pageants and contests and keep records. And they expect you to fall in line.

Once I went into a Baltimore restaurant that will go unnamed, and ordered a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, then told the waitress to hold the tomato. "What?" she said. "You can't do that, Hon!" I had to sneak the juicy stuff out surreptitiously and roll it in a napkin.

Try as I might to understand, the reason for all this tomato-philia eludes me. Admittedly, as a fruit (or a vegetable, depending on which side of that great debate you are on) it has an interesting history. The Mexicans were the first people to cultivate it. Then Cortez came, saw, and invented gazpacho.

The tomato reached Europe in the middle of the 16th century and the Italians named it pomi d'oro, golden apple. That tells us tomatoes used to be yellow, or 16th century Italians were all color blind.

Later it became popular as an ornament in the garden. This was the red version, which the French named (wouldn't you know it!) pomme d'amour: love apple. They thought it was an aphrodisiac, but a chancy one because they also thought it was poison and would kill you, thus the popularity in France for the expression "Love and Death."

This misconception about the lethal nature of the tomato lasted into the 19th century.

In my humble opinion it would have been better had things continued this way. Then we would have been spared these annual tomato Olympics, with one guy here competing with the other guy there to bring forth the largest, roundest Lycopersicon esculentum in the neighborhood, and thereby make his neighbors envy and despise him, and wish slugs upon his garden.

The current world champion in this grotesque competition is a shadowy character named G. Graham, who in 1986 brought forth in his hometown of Edmond, Okla., a tomato that weighed 7 pounds and 12 ounces. The strain probably ruined him for life, and prevented his having a family. He's not been heard of since.

When I read this report in the Guinness Book of World Records, a single image popped into my mind, followed by a single question. The image was of the huge ball of string on display in the basement of Haussner's Restaurant in East Baltimore. The question was: Why?

Continuing in the Guinness book, I encountered the world's largest zucchini, grown by a Welsh person named B. Lavery in 1990. It weighed 64 pounds and 8 ounces.

The question this information triggered was: What's he going to do with that?

The answer was frightening.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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