beware: the pretenders

by bam

don’t be fooled, people. those squat red orbs skulking in the tomato bins, they are not what you think they are. they are impostors. not even particularly convincing ones. but they’re lurking.
they are there to tempt you, make you want to take a bite. but don’t, i tell you. not since eve has there been such reason to resist.
oh, not that all mankind will fall apart. not that paradise is ours to lose. we lost that a long time ago. back when eve told adam to clamp down with his incisors. or maybe, sadly, when jfk was felled that awful dallas day. all i know is, this ain’t camelot no more.
and it sure is not tomatoland. not today anyway. and not tomorrow.
do not be seduced by the pretenders in the produce aisle, that’s my caution. if it’s summer’s essence you think you’ll taste, think again. it is not yet tomato time.
i know, i know, the calendar says july. and i know you cannot bear to wait another minute. i also know that what you see, piled high and looking greased, for heaven’s sake, is neither brandywine nor big boy nor his hefty sister, big girl, either. (i’m not so sure i’d take a liking to a name like that, by the way, if i were dangling on a vine, awaiting summer’s blush to come my way.)
that fruit you see there, it is either a.) a hothouse social climber, or b.) trucked in from far away, plucked before its time, so as not to turn to mush, or tomato puree, inside some steaming truck along a jampacked interstate, zigzagging coast-to-coast.
all because we are a nation, an anxious lot, that cannot stand to wait. we do not do so good at twiddling thumbs. oh, no, thank you, we want service and we want it now.
you want your tomatoes before their time? well, then, you will have to settle for costumed styrofoam, might as well be halloween, posing as the height-of-summer’s most prized champion of the vine.
for my money, there is no finer indulgence than the sweet and runny first bite of the summer’s finest fruit, the one that pretends it’s a vegetable.
a clear clean aorta-gushing bite, is what we’re talkin’. not that whitish-grayish-pinkish composition that makes you think someone drained the tomato out of the skin. which, frankly, they did.
they’ve gone and worried about every blessed tomato factor, except the way it tastes.
but there are those, and i am one, who know where to find the real thing. and how to wait.
i am waiting.
but even i get fooled.
just the other day, my sweet mate and produce purveyor on occasion, had occasion to be somewhere near the knuckle of the ring finger of ol’ michigan’s mitten (they talk this way in michigan, i kid you not, everything is of the hand; what they mean, basically, is he was up north in the great car state).
there, beside the road, he saw a stand proclaiming to be a farmer’s stand. he bought a peck of red tomaters. he brought them home. odd, i thought, that northern woods would have a true tomato before my friends in central illinois.
but i, like adam, succumbed. i gave in to mid-july temptation. i took the bait. i bit.
bllkkh, is all that i can say.
then i did some sniffing around. i investigated what was in that farmer’s grocery bag. and there i noticed, dead giveaway, a sticky little tag. no farmer i know takes the time to tag his harvest on the way from field to truck.
this was not a farmer tagging fruits. this was some industrial operation, masquerading as a farm, growing bushels, yes, but in arkansas, for crying out loud. i could have pedaled my wicker basket to the nearest grocery, had i wanted a tomato from the home of sam walton and that chicken man who looked like ross perot.
what in the world were they doing peddling arkansas tomatoes up in northern michigan, under the guise of some suspendered farmer’s old wood stand?
those dern tumaytahs had traveled 790 miles, at least, from little rock to kalkaska, and another 227 home to me. with the going rate for gasoline at somewhere in the 3-bucks-and-change range, that means those faux tomatoes racked up a whole $177.98 in travel expenses before they got within drooling distance of my mouth.
for that much moolah i could have planted my whole back yard in big girls, only i would dub them maybe bodacious babes, or honey-you-got-you-some-cheeks. and i would have irrigated them, hourly, with perrier, the fuzzy water that broke the ice when it came to wanting more in h2o than what flowed from the kitchen faucet.
please do not tell my tomato driver that he drove all that way, pulled off the road, for little less than nothing.
but promise me, you’ll not fall in the same tomato trap.
repeat after me: it is not quite time to take a bite. it is not yet tomato hour, no matter how tempted you are to think so.
in the meantime i will help you bide the time, by sharing with you my supremely top-secret how-to-eat-a-tomato strategy:
grab the finest salt on your shelf. a good gray sea salt will do. kosher, in a pinch, is swell. next, pull down your pepper grinder. no shaker here. you need the grinding action, which will make it rain, should the stars align, in quarter chunks of peppercorn. you need that bit of grit to really score the bite we’re after.
now, for the hard part: when you have been alerted, by certified letter, that the tomatoes on the vine, or at the farmer’s market, are the genuine article, none of this ersatz tomato business, you may then pass go, go directly to your botanic destination. do not squeeze. use your nose, for heaven’s sake. sniff out the best there is. then take it home. oh, don’t forget to pay. unless it’s from your own vine, you’re plucking.
rinse, shake, grind.
now bite. is it running down your chin? are you drooling? or are you swooning so, you hadn’t even noticed? or given half a whit?
well then, repeat, repeat. when all is gone, you’re sort of done. only you won’t want to stop, as you’ve been waiting a whole long year, and the weeks preceding, what with all the temptation you’ve been thwarting, have frankly been a bit of hell.
so, then, chomp on. i won’t look. wolf as many as you can, before your belly bellows: time out! i can’t take another luscious bite.
once your tummy settles, though, carry on again.
we’ll be back to mere impostors soon enough.
and you know what that demands: tomato abstinence, the penance for pretenders.

how do you do tomatoes? do you have concoctions you wait all year to make? is it not worth the wait, that sweet first bite, which we’ve yet to take? or have you? have you some secret local source for the real thing, dripping down your chin? ’fess up. let us hear your tomato truths.