May 6, 2004
In the spring, even the most urbanized Southerners exhibit an itch to plant tomatoes. Many Southern gardeners take stock of their formal perennial beds and despair of finding a sunny spot for a tomato plant. Some acknowledge their passion for this vegetable by planting cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets or dwarf varieties in containers, but other braver souls violate the horticultural code that consigns vegetables to the back of the house, and have been known to plant a bed of Big Boys in a sunny spot out front next to the SUV.
No more fruitful digression can be imagined.
Speaking strictly for myself, I do not eat those things they call tomatoes in the supermarkets; genetically, perhaps they are tomatoes, but they have an unnatural color, they're harder than a rock, and as far as taste goes, I'd much rather eat one of Mark McGwire's sweat socks.
If you've never enjoyed the sensation of going out to the garden, picking a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and eating it right there on that spot atop of God's good earth with the tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm sunshine on your face, then you've never had a tomato at its best. If you have, then you can truly say, "I know what a tomato is," for then you have achieved an existential union with tomato-ness.
Or maybe that's an essential union; I forget the distinction. I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I'm not really sure I took it in the first place, which means I might have passed the course after all.
Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the soil are a hallmark of great Southern dinners; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate, usually with a fragrant cantaloupe and maybe a good, dewy cucumber (all slightly chilled with a mint garnish) is a signature addition to any summer meal.
I consider a ripe tomato the crowning glory of Southern vegetables, but everybody has their own favorite; some advocate summer squash, others favor fresh beans and peas, and still others extol sweet corn. Some eccentric souls even champion okra or eggplant. But even back in the Bad Old Days when most of the country ate out of a can or from the frozen food section, people in the South knew to get their vegetables from gardens, and if they didn't have a friend or relative they could help out by weeding and hoeing for some of the returns, they could get fine vegetables from the truck gardens and produce stands along the byways.
So when you're out on the road this summer and you see little produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by and spending a little time and a little money getting to know the vegetables of the South and the people who grow them.
It'll be a philosophy lesson you'll always remember.
Chick Peas with Summer Tomatoes
Marinate a quart of cooked chick peas overnight in a half of a cup of olive oil and the juice of a lemon with two crushed and finely minced cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt and several twists of coarse black pepper. (Stir as often as you can.) An hour before serving, add two or three very nice ripe tomatoes that have been diced and drained (but not rinsed), a small, fresh white onion finely chopped and two small cucumbers, peeled and cubed. Season with a pinch more salt, a little more pepper and a good dash of white vinegar along with a teaspoon of finely minced fresh basil. (Stir as often as you can). Serve over a bed of chopped lettuce hearts; garnish with fresh whole parsley.