The Big House in West Monroe

Nanny, grandmother to many of us kids, grew tomatoes and other lesser vegetables in her garden at The Big House, which sat on the banks of the Ouachita River on the outskirts of West Monroe, Louisiana. Her tomatoes were large and luscious. They graced our table at most every meal at The Big House. I guess Nanny caused me to become addicted to the versatile, delectable tomato.

I love tomatoes. What would a BLT be without a thick slice of juicy ripe tomato? My ideal BLT comes with only tomato and crispy fried bacon between two pieces of whole wheat toast that has been slathered with Hellman’s Mayonnaise. I mean slathered on with a spatula, not gently spread on with a table knife. Forget the lettuce. It just messes up the whole thing.

My cheeseburger should come with as much tomato as meat. Naturally, it should also contain all the other things Jimmy Buffet and I call for–a generous slice of onion and a giant kosher pickle.

Of course a roast beef, shrimp or oyster Po-boy should be presented “dressed.” For those not lucky enough to grow up in the Queen City, New Orleans, “dressed” means your crusty french bread is thickly plastered with mayonnaise, spread with shredded lettuce, then topped off with fat slices of tomatoes and pickles that slide around on the mayonnaise, between the bread and the main ingredient. If the roast beef po-boy is good, a mixture of gravy and mayonnaise should run out of the sides of the sandwich, through your fingers and down to your elbows.

Po-Boys come in three grades. A One Napkin sandwich is a good sandwich. A Two Napkin rates a very good and the Three Napkin deserves the excellent rating.

I also relish just a tomato sandwich. Nothing but generous slices of cold, ripe, succulent tomatoes between two pieces of bread–fortified with a dash of salt and pepper and great quantities of mayonnaise.

Other dishes I desire that require the regal tomato include, pasta sauce, okra and tomatoes, and gumbo.

I have been known to eat a whole large can of Hunt’s Tomatoes at a sitting. I keep them in the refrigerator. I don’t care that “they”, whoever the hell “they” are, say we should not keep tomatoes in the refrigerator. I like cold tomatoes. I even like to put fresh tomatoes in a pan of ice water before I slice them, sprinkle on a little salt, and bite in, feeling the juice squirt down my cheeks. I open the top of the Hunt’s can, dash in a bit of Worcestershire sauce, and have at the tomatoes–the excessive salt be damned.

Given my passion for tomatoes, when Karen invited me to join her for a lecture on growing tomatoes being presented at the Extension Service in our County Seat, I hastened to truck on up to Defuniak Springs with her. To our astonishment, we arrived to find the parking lot full and the lecture room packed to an over-capacity.  More than one-hundred and fifty wannabe and frustrated veteran tomato growers, including Karen and I, came from three counties to hear acclaimed expert Larry Williams tell us how to get a tomato from a seed to our tables.

Seems like all types test their skills at growing tomatoes. When asked by an FBI agent if he were not the infamous Mafia boss of the New Orleans area, Carlos Marcello replied “I am just a humble tomato grower.”

In the packed meeting room, Larry spewed out information from the get-go for an hour and fifteen minutes. The fingers of my writing hand galloped across seven pages of yellow pad notes. By the end of the session, my hand had cramped, my butt ached and my ears were ringing, but I had learned more about tomatoes than I ever wanted to know. I now have a great respect for the good folks who work diligently to bring me luscious tomatoes.

Larry startled us with many little known facts about tomatoes. Could it be that tomatoes did not originate in Florida or my home state of Louisiana? No they came from the Andes via Mexico in 1710. Could this be why our Mexican friends are so good at raising them?

What a surprise to learn that a plump red tomato is from the Salonaceae family. We were even more astounded to learn that Its cousins include potatoes, peppers, eggplant and tobacco.

The tasty red delicacies I yearn for are botanically a fruit, but for some weird quirk of early tax law they are now treated as a vegetable. Of course we all know that tomatoes are full of vitamins and minerals that benefit us. Larry said some folks are allergic to the venerable tomato. I feel for such unfortunate souls, and pray this malady does not beset me.

Larry meticulously covered the growing of tomatoes. This gave Karen and me pause to think about the tomato crop in our back yard. Larry explained that there are two types of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. As I understand what he said, the determinate varieties grow just one crop of smallish tomatoes all abut the same size then stop growing. The indeterminate just keep growing and the tomatoes get larger and larger during the season. I thought to myself, “Now that is my kind of tomato.”

But Larry really stunned Karen and me when he advised that the Heirloom variety of tomatoes, which we have mostly in our garden, are subject to the dreaded Spotted Wilt Virus that was first identified in Santa Rosa County in 1989. According to Larry, Hybrid tomatoes are resistant to this plague. Did we plant the wrong variety or, our suspicious minds ask, “Is Larry just trying to sell Hybrids?”

Organic Tomatoes

Organic Tomatoes

Larry also opined that tomatoes like full sun. We have a shaded yard.  He said, “Tomatoes don’t like competing with tree roots.” Our planting area is full of oak and pine trees and palmetto bushes. Larry insisted that we need to know the PH of our soil. We have never had the soil tested. Our knowledgeable instructor informed us that mushroom compost alone will not provide the nutrients tomatoes need to grow. We had trucked in two pickup loads of very ripe, smelly mushroom compost for our tomatoes.

Larry warned us to only water the plants early in the morning, never at night, so their leaves would dry out and not invite fungus. We have been watering sometimes in the  morning, but especially heavy at night. Larry warned, “Disinfect your stakes and wire trellises from last year with bleach.” Ours have never encountered so much as garden hoses.  They just went into the ground with whatever old fungi and viruses lurked on them from last year.

The last discouraging blow Larry delivered came in the form of a Power Point Presentation. He showed us at least twenty species of evil-looking bugs that would eat our tomatoes before we could. He also told us of bird attacks. It seems that birds are smart enough to become accustomed to the scarecrows or fake snakes we put about our garden to frighten them off. We are now obliged to become smarter than our feathered friends if we wish to enjoy the fruits or vegetables of our labors. Maybe the owl Karen painted on a shiny cookie pan and placed near the tomatoes or the the old CDs she has dangled from the trees near the garden will scare off the ravenous birds.

Lawsy, Lawsy, man, I just don’t know if I am up to it. Thank goodness for Karen’s tenacious spirit.

I’m off to the store to purchase red Christmas ornaments for her to distract the voracious avian invaders.

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2 Responses to TOMATOES

  1. Sylvia Alf says:

    Until reading your article, I considered the tomato a pedestrian veggie and took it for granted. Now I view it in more exalted ways. I, too, grew up in the country and tomatoes were a staple all year: fresh, dried, canned and in relishes, casseroles, and soups. And what on the planet can compare to a fried green tomato sandwich on homemade bread slathered with real mayonnaise?

    Please do other musings about foods.

  2. Mr Billy says:

    My dear friend — It is good to see you back — Thanks for the tomato story — It reminded me that it’s that time again — will start looking for my plants — I use “EARTH BOX” planters and plan to order 2 more — I enjoy all of your stories — Keep them coming — Thanks — Mr Billy

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