Wid city // Late tomatoes

I’m coming off a two-week tomato orgy. It was all the more enjoyable for being unexpected. The early season cool spell and the midsummer blast furnace heat messed with the development of all our garden plants. When it came to tomatoes, we had resigned ourselves to late, and few.

The October warm-up, the eighty-degree days, changed that to late, and many. Even with the autumn sun at a lower angle in the sky than in August, those rays still did the trick; they all but kissed the green fruits. Suddenly there were more ripe ones than I could carry in my arms. Though we ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the basket on our kitchen table seemed to be on automatic refill. A dozen waited there for us no matter how fast we burned through them.

My favorite tomato meal this season was a breakfast sandwich I built as follows: sourdough bun bottom with spreadable goat cheese, slab of tomato, over-easy fried egg, slab of tomato, bun top with goat cheese. With each squishy bite the warm, soft egg yolk and tomato pulp ran down my chin and arms.

And I’m not even the big tomato lover at our house, my husband is. I’m the gardener. Each year I give the tomatoes a prime location because for him a good tomato crop equals a good summer. I tend them, he watches them grow.

He gets excited when the first one ripens, and, no matter how many we harvest, he insists we eat them fresh, when they are at their best. So we have had many a tasty snack with just-picked tomatoes, sometimes adding a sprinkle of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, or a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The tomatoes we grow are heirlooms. We switched over about 10 years ago and never looked back. I saw an ad for a garden sale at an Eden Prairie farm that offered heirloom tomato bedding plants, and we went out to have a look around. It has become a ritual. In early May we head out to the farm.

We were convinced by the whimsical names of the different types of heirlooms: Abraham Lincoln, Boxcar Willie, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple and Mr. Stripey. Between us we have two college degrees in English, and the course work for a third, so words carry weight.

But it would have been a one-year experiment if these tomatoes hadn’t tasted so good. My husband is a foodie. I remember one of my early impressions of him. We were driving back from our first camping trip, and I wondered quietly to myself: “Are we always going to spend so much time talking about food?” The answer to that turned out to be yes.

As is true of so many things in our marriage, we come at food from different angles, but all of my peak eating experiences have happened courtesy of my husband. He is the one who introduced me to soft-shelled crabs, to crawfish gumbo, to English steamed puddings.

Heirloom tomatoes we discovered together. Because they come in different colors than red, and different shapes than round, they draw attention. The Mr. Stripey, our all-time favorite, is downright cheerful. These tomatoes have a sunburst (stripes) of red on their yellow skin and flesh, and they are large. If you cup both your hands and place them side-by-side, palms up, one Mr. Stripey would fill that space. And they are sweet.

Heirlooms aren’t as prolific as hybrids, but on the other hand they don’t require as much fussing. We water the plants when we think of it and give them a top dressing of compost for food. They take it from there.

The October warm-up this year gave our other vegetables a boost as well. We had yellow zucchini for dinner sautéed in olive oil with garlic. Some days I added rainbow chard to the pan.

We had an avalanche of cucumbers. We are still eating kale and collards, and I just picked the last raspberries. We are eating Honeycrisp apples from our tree, and tangy applesauce we made from our Haralsons.

I’ve been feeling like a nut, telling everyone who will listen (and telling my husband over and over again) how much I love to eat what I grow. I am a one-person harvest festival. There is something just so right about what I like to call “eating the yard.”
It is weird how happy it makes me.

For many of us, homegrown, especially tomatoes, is about pleasure. In fact, one of our friends has said that if he dies before his wife does, he wants to come back as a Big Boy tomato — so she could enjoy him one more time.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.