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« Happiest Month of the… | Home | A Pastor's Memories »

The Summer of the Tomato

Monday 25 June 2018 at 04:44 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 21, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            For me, this has been the “Summer of the Tomato” thus far! First of all, friends from our church sent home with my wife some luscious tomatoes from their prolific garden three Sundays in a row. Then came the Wharton Garden Club Tomato Fest last week!

            It pays to be the husband of the Wharton Garden Club President, because I am often blessed with the good stuff my wife brings home from their meetings, luncheons and celebrations. I had been wanting a crepe myrtle tree in my yard for years; recently, the wife brought home from her wonderful Club three crepe myrtle trees/shrubs, ready to be planted! Then, came their annual Tomato Fest, and I found myself being blessed with award-winning tomatoes grown by a member from Wharton, along with other vegetables, and the piece de resistance, -- a scrumptious cake made with tomato soup by a Garden Club member from East Bernard. All this, and I don’t even have to pay dues! Great perks for being married to the right person!

            Although there are annual Tomato Festivals held all over the world, Dime Box, during my childhood years, never had one; but the folks there did raise lots and lots of luscious nightshades. In fact, I remember many arguments over the years between my mother and various other tomato growers as to which kind was the best to plant, -- the Big Boy (my mother’s favorite), the Brandywine, or the Beef Steak! Which kind you planted partly depended on what you were going to use the fruit for.

            Some would use tomatoes for making a kind of salsa which they called “chili sauce,” but Mama would use most of hers for making catsup, which she would put up in soda water bottles. My brother and I helped her by serving as her bottle cappers, operating a simple, old-timey bottle-capping device. Most delicious catsup I have ever eaten in my life! Maybe someday the husband of the Garden Club President will be given some homemade catsup.

            My maternal German grandmother would slice tomatoes and serve them after sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on them. My maternal Wendish grandmother would serve sliced tomatoes with salt. Apparently, Germanic peoples thought of the tomato as a fruit, while the Wendish folks considered them vegetables. My tastes went with the Wendish side of the family. But everyone in my family grew and loved tomatoes in spite of the fact they belong to the nightshade family of plants (which contain poisonous alkaloids, and were not eaten by folks in the United States until after the 1830’s). They were grown as ornamental-only plants in England.

            South of the Border they were eaten much earlier in history, as the plant originated in South America, with the word “tomato” itself having been derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word, “tomatl” and Spanish “tomate.” Considering how delicious they are, I’m glad we finally discovered they were good to eat.

            While Dime Box never held a Tomato Festival, other towns and cities throughout the world did, certainly from the mid-19th Century on. Like the Fest held in Wharton, Tomato Festivals worldwide would have tomato-judging, along with the sampling of tomato dishes, with the most important of the judging being the heaviest or largest fruit. While the heaviest tomato at the Wharton Fest was 1 pound, 15 ounces, the heaviest on record was at a Festival in Walla Walla, Washington, weighing in at 8.61 pounds and making the Guinness World Record.

            A unique and crazy Tomato Festival (La Tomatina) takes place every summer in Bunol, Spain, where participants, among other activities, engage in throwing tomatoes at one another. This results in the town square totally covered by tomato pulp. A lot less crazy is the Creole Tomato Festival held in the French Market in New Orleans. Many of the fests held in Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc., include Vintage Car Shows, crafts, music, and a “Miss Tomato” contest. Tomato Fests are indeed part of the summer fun throughout the USA.

            One of the lessons I have learned from “The Summer of the Tomato” is to try to make each moment of life a happy one, a good lesson for a shut-in like me. Happiness doesn’t have to come from the spectacular things (though a tomato fight might be considered pretty spectacular), but from simple acts of planting, nourishing, and eating the fruits of the earth. The Japanese Haikuists taught us that truth long ago, describing moments of joy such as watching a frog splash into the frogpond, or fireflies sprinkling the night with tiny lights. I am glad I learned this, and I am glad to be experiencing this wonderful Summer of the Tomato!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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