Tomatoes evoke Rehoboth summer memories

August 21, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

AS I finished one more Eastern Shore tomato salad, I couldn't help but smile about the day my younger brother Eddie went into the vegetable business for himself.

It was about 40 years ago, hot and August, at the corner of Maryland Avenue and the Boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in the days when families spent the long summers at the ocean. My father arrived on the weekends, his Rambler station wagon filled with mail from Baltimore and, on this occasion, several bushels of tomatoes donated by a commercial grower friend in New Jersey.

Even for our hungry household of 12, this was a bumper crop. We passed them out to summertime friends, but there was still an excess. And oceanfront refrigeration was not extensive.

Somehow my brother Eddie got the idea that these nice ripe tomatoes might sell in the same way that kids set up stands and offer lemonade.

With permission, he selected a dozen or so tomatoes and arranged them on the land side of the boardwalk, which in those days still had plenty of lots and vacant spaces after the storm of March 1962 swept through the place. Eddie found a spot where, after a high, high tide, the ocean had cut in, undermined some sand, and created a little depression where he could stand. He had a perfect sales counter, if a dubious product.

The vacant lot he chose was between a Swiss Dairy Farm soft ice-cream shop and the Pink Pony cocktail lounge, facing, of course, a sunny and beautiful beach.

I thought to myself that my brother displayed a lot of enterprise and his characteristic optimism about selling very ripe tomatoes to bathers entering and exiting the beach. Being a pessimist, I could only envision all the things (cool drinks, suntan lotion, beach chairs) that the boardwalk crowd would want more than a 5-cent tomato. How wrong I was.

Our home was next door in a small apartment building fronted by a screened porch with a full view of the ocean and Eddie's little tomato market. My grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Cora, missed nothing worth observing from their personal crow's nest.

Cora gave Eddie about a salesless hour on his own, as I recall, then decided to coax things along a bit. She appeared on the boardwalk in full walking attire, ironed cotton blouse and Bermuda shorts worthy of the city of Hamilton on the British Commonwealth island. With her dark prescription glasses and deep tan, she looked the part of a seasoned vacationer.

Assuming the role of a would-be shopper, and in a voice that could have been heard in the next county, she proclaimed how marvelous, ripe and juicy the tomatoes looked and noted that the local A&P would have charged far more.

She put her nickel down and dusted up enough of a commotion that someone else (an actual customer, not related) bought one.

On the spot, she saw the sales marketing potential and took off for the apartment. She arrived back, not with paper bags, but with a magic sales tool: a salt cellar. It worked. Before long, Eddie was sold out and half the beach munched on healthy, ripe, salty tomatoes.

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