Many years ago I attended a wedding in Missouri in August and flew back to Colorado with three large tomatoes squeezed snugly in a small tupperware in my carry-on. At first I wasn’t sure I’d get by security, sneaking produce over state lines. I was especially worried my tupperware of choice (a used cool whip container) would tip them off to something shady. So I breathed a sigh of relief when no eyebrows were raised at the gate. Of course they see plenty of salad-bearing travelers. (Maybe not cool whip cheapo containers, but who knows what the security x-rays show.)
I guarded my plane treasures in my lap all the way across Kansas. I was ecstatic to surprise Joe (who, as usual, offered to stay home with toddlers instead of traipsing all of us cross country to a wedding) with fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes. I can testify there was nothing we missed more in the mountains than a good tomato. Peaches, I suppose, but a Coloradoan would argue their Palisade variety can’t be beat (they would be wrong, but not worth arguing over). John Denver, who loved Rocky Mountain highs wrote equally as fervently about tomatoes:
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.
I really thought it was just one of those delicious things I’d have to give up for the rest of my life, like sugar cookies for a diabetic. I knew, presumably as John Denver did, that homegrown tomatoes and Rocky Mountains were distinctly different songs on a playlist, not something that lived in cohesive harmony in actual real life.
But let me tell you about a good tomato, if you’ve never experienced one before:
A good tomato doesn’t resist being sliced. If it is ripe, there is nearly zero resistance to a sharp knife cutting into it like butter. A good tomato, as it is sliced, will burst with juice. It won’t pop and squirt out seeds (cherry tomatoes do, but not big, beautiful heirlooms), nor will it have massive pockets of jelly, flavorless goo in the center of firm, underripe fruit. A good tomato is richly colored on the inside as well as the outside, and the flavor is an extension of its coloring. It might taste smooth and smoky, or sweet and drippy, or tangy and cool. A good tomato never has a repulsive texture. A good tomato will find a home with any meal. A good tomato can make a mayo hater become a mayo lover.
I would venture to guess that if you are someone who, after ordering a burger at a restaurant, immediately removes the tomato, then you a.) have never had a decent tomato in your life or b.) you have eaten a good tomato in your life and you won’t settle for anything less. Either way, I do believe we all ought to be removing the tomato from our restaurant burgers. And it would be worth a trip to the midwest or south in the summer to enjoy a good tomato, and just to be reminded what all y’all’s burgers are missing.
In Missouri in the country, gardening is the most natural of hobbies. Even the most heathen bothers to have a pot of something growing on their porch. At the very least, they can recognize a decent tomato when it comes to making a baloney sandwich, and they don’t settle for a fifty cent half yellow Roma at the grocery store. The average soul expects to make strawberry shortcake in late May and early June. Blueberry pie makes an appearance late June. Blackberries and peaches, good for any cobbler, jam, or ice cream, if we’re lucky, show up in July.
An abundance of produce doesn’t sit wrinkling on the vine; it is given away. Folks leave veggies in walmart bags at the back of church. In fact, nearly every sermon in a small church in the summer references gardening, which is met with understanding heads nodding from the pews. A drive through the country is a lesson in artistic planning (did you see they have chicken wire for their fencing?) and a humble display of good timing (is their corn already tassled?)
My first best friend in Durango marveled at our garden on the mountain, a miracle of triumph at 8,000 feet with a vanishing season of 70 days, 85 if lucky. She asked how in the world our turnips grew so prolifically. Turnips, along with the other typical cold weather plants–kale, lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, collards, peas, potatoes–were the only reliable produce.
“You just throw the seed in the ground and hope it doesn’t come up,” Joe had quipped, himself a product of Missouri summers and tempered optimism.
Weeding a mountain garden is kind of oxymoronic, so surprised are the mountains to have actual vegetables growing on them. For a midwesterner, who has only ever bitten into softball-sized peaches, the juice drenching your shirt, or hoed for ten minutes around a crop only to make a disappointing dent in the weeds–being asked earnest how to cultivate turnips (one might argue a weed in its own right) on a mountain does seem like a joke. We were lucky to grow anything on that mountain–luckier still to have a chance to return to Missouri and have a shot at growing and eating things we love again.
After two nights on Honey Creek, my mother arrived with her Chevy Captiva stuffed full of tomato plants. We dug into the red mulch the previous owners had laid to hide the old garden beds, and we poked our tender baby plants into whatever soil lurked beneath the landscaping fabric. In the corners we planted celosia (a house warming gift from my sister), and closest to the house we added okra and peppers.
My mom was happy. Joe was happy. I am ecstatic. The tomatoes are climbing out of their cages so that I’ve had to tie them up to the gutters with twine.
There was one evening I was in the house, sick, and Gretty burst into my room looking for a jar for her “big, huge, green caterpillar” which I quickly deduced must be a hornworm, since she’d found it on a tomato plant. We did some quick thinking, drowned the hornworm in the pond, and sprinkled some pest dust on the plants.
The Black from Tula and Black Krems are getting to be the size of both my fists put together. Precious Pink is turning a lovely shade of rose. Mr. Stripey is coming on strong.
Do you know what? I can’t think of a single thing more exciting than picking tomatoes from my garden, frying some bacon, slathering some mayo on bread, sandwiching it all together and eating it. Not a single thing. I wouldn’t miss eating a tomato from my garden for a million dollars. I wouldn’t miss it to meet the president. I wouldn’t trade in for a thousand mountain sunsets, and that’s saying something.
And you want to know something else? I’ve yet to meet a mountain person who feels the same way I do about a decent tomato.
It just proves the point that Rocky Mountain high is fleeting, but tomato season in Missouri is once a year.
One glorious once every glorious year.