When I was a kid we ate stewed tomatoes on bread. We’d take a slice of bread, slather some butter on it, pour heated up stewed tomatoes over it and call it dinner. I hated it. Sometimes we had it several times a week. I thought it was pure torture. Of course, we weren’t permitted to complain. We were poor and it was sustenance and it fulfilled God’s promise to provide for our needs. Gratitude was not just expected, it was required. Before every meal we all bowed our heads and thanked God for what he had given us. Even stewed tomatoes on bread. I might have secretly crossed my fingers.
We had a million tomato plants on the farm where I grew up. Every summer Mom grew tomatoes in the garden and every summer there were a billion tomatoes. Maybe more. Not those rock hard, juiceless, red blobs they try to pass of as tomatoes down at the supermarket, either. These were real tomatoes. Sweet, succulent, and wonderfully huge. There was nothing better than a ripe, juicy, red tomato fresh off the vine devoured with a little table salt from the shaker I had earlier commandeered from the kitchen cupboard when Mom wasn’t looking. I still have pleasant dreams about sneaking out to the garden and finding the perfect ripe tomato.
I loved those fresh tomatoes, but at the end of every tomato growing season Mom would take all the remaining half billion tomatoes, cook them to death, seal them in glass jars, and store them in the root cellar. The root cellar was a large dirt hole in the ground underneath the house and it was full of rickety wooden shelves laden with all the jars of tomatoes and other vegetables Mom had canned. It was accessed through a trap door in the living room floor. Mom would roll back the rug, open the trap door, and disappear into the darkness below. Something happened to the tomatoes in that cellar. Something evil. They turned from something delightful into an unmitigated disaster. From tasty and pure, to some horrific stewed concoction unfit for human consumption. Ugh. Mom would head to the cellar and bring up jars of gooey red tomato slime, wash the dust from the lid, unscrew the lid, grab her little hooky thing that unsealed the jars, opening them with a pop, and then heat the contents on the stove while we buttered our bread and awaited our fate. She would spoon some of the hot goo on our bread and we would bow our heads and thank God for his bounty to us and then we would stick a fork in it and eat it.
In that era there was no such thing as an allergy. You couldn’t say tomatoes gave you a headache or messed with your metabolism. We wouldn’t have known what a metabolism was. That wasn’t a thing. We couldn’t have said that there was an article on the internet that eating tomatoes could give us worms or ulcers or pink hair. Mostly it was because there wasn’t an internet or computers or scientific studies or much of anything that would have said tomatoes were bad for you. They were vegetables and they were healthy and good for you and everybody’s mom would make you eat them. We would not have dared to say we didn’t like them. That would have been a big mistake. If we had even hinted that stewed tomatoes weren’t our favorite, Mom would have reminded us of starving children in some far off part of the world who would love to eat the scraps from our table and then we would have had to wash the dishes and read aloud the little poem on a plaque above the kitchen sink that read, “Thank God for dirty dishes, they have a tale to tell, while others may go hungry we’re eating very well. With home, and hearth, and happiness we ought not ever fuss, since from this stack of evidence, God’s been mighty good to us.” We didn’t have a dishwasher. We were the dishwashers. You had lots of time to memorize the plaque. If you said you wouldn’t eat the dinner she would take away your plate and you would go hungry. No substitute. No snack later on when your stomach was growling. Just a long, hungry night of misery. And if you got obnoxious about it, you might miss the next meal, too. There was no consideration for your particular tastes. None. Mom didn’t seem to know or care that I hated stewed tomatoes.
I still love a good ripe tomato with a little salt. My wife, the smart nurse person, once took some nutrition classes and she declared to me that tomatoes are a fruit. People constantly ask her for complex medical advice and they are unaware that she thinks tomatoes belong with the peaches and the cherries and the apples. I scoffed at her since everyone knows tomatoes were in the vegetable garden. I couldn’t really trust her after that.
We were in California once visiting my brother, Mark, and he had a whole bunch of ripe tomatoes in his backyard garden. We picked a couple bags full before heading back home to Arizona where it is way too hot to grow good tomatoes. When we got to the border between the states, the uniformed inspector asked if we had any fruit or plants in the car. Fortunately I was driving and could say no. If Kathy had been driving we would have had to turn our ‘fruit’ in to the inspectors who would have probably snuck behind their little inspection station with a salt shaker and enjoyed ripe tomatoes from my brother’s vines. As it was, we got to stand at the kitchen sink later that evening with a salt shaker and tomato juice dripping down our chins marveling at the goodness of God to his kids.
Today is my day off. I’ve got a bunch of ripe tomatoes and a big stew pot. I’ve decided to make homemade ‘marinara’ since that sounds much better than ‘stewed tomatoes’ and I’m going to serve it on pasta with some meatballs since that sounds much better than bread and butter. But before I do that, I’m eating the biggest, juiciest uncooked one first. With a little salt…
I told Mom about my big plan. She said, “Really, I thought you were the one who hated stewed tomatoes.”
I always knew she knew…