I don’t lie awake summer nights worrying about nuclear proliferation or the electoral college. I lie awake worrying about Not Enough Tomatoes.
Have I calculated correctly to last a week? Did I get enough at the farmers market for a tomato pie for Tuesday night; chicken salad stuffed in tomatoes for Wednesday night; sliced tomatoes with salmon cakes for Thursday night; quartered tomatoes with cottage cheese, spring onions, and bacon bits for Friday night; sliced tomatoes with basil, mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar with a steak for Friday night; and a tomato sandwich for lunch every day? Calculations complicated further by the fact that I’ll pretend not to see that tomato half in the fridge in order to have a room-temperature one for my sandwich. And did I buy the tomatoes at the correct ripening stage so that none will rot before I can eat them, but plenty will ripen enough by midweek? These are the epic dilemmas of seasonal insomnia.
Yes, I could grow them myself, but hanging wallpaper and growing tomatoes are two things I’ve sworn never to do again. One deterrent is the childhood memory of my father in bed for two days after a packsaddle caterpillar lurking on a tomato vine stung him. I do miss the warm, rounded heft of a just-picked tomato in my palm, and that sharp, somehow peppery smell of a broken stem, the aromatic essence of summer. But growing those suckers breaks your heart, with the sudden sinkholes in the flesh, the split at the stem, the black spots you gouge out. And, in the last decade, tomatoes have become so refined, or, in my grandmother’s vernacular, turned grand. Purple, yellow, green; heirloom, Roma, cherry, grape; Pink Girls, Mountain Prides, Better Boys. Why hasn’t someone dubbed a variety the Cackalacky, I wonder? (Although no variety impresses my son, who claims that tomatoes taste like, quote, old water. So what? Crowder peas taste like dust, and I can’t get enough of them, either.) I’m not refined so much as particular: I eat only German Johnsons. A German Johnson isn’t a pretty piece of produce; rather, it’s lumpy and bulbous, with matte, as opposed to shiny, skin. But it’s the only tomato for a sammie: sweet, but acidic enough to make those glands behind your molars pucker.
So there you are, with the tomatoes you’ve so carefully ferried back from the farmers market, making certain that they weren’t in squish-danger beside the corn or beneath the zucchini — you nestled them, you did — and you take them, one by one, from the bag, and place them just so on the windowsill. But when you come back for lunch, two have thumped off the windowsill and dropped to the sink and into the maw of the disposal. Bruised and battered, they’ve become rurnt tomatoes.
Enter the tomato rack. When people enter my kitchen, they don’t comment on the New Yorker funnies taped to my fridge. They don’t comment on the disgustingly blackened state of my toaster oven. They say, “Where did you get that? I want one.” “That” is my tomato rack, and you’re going to want one, too. “That” is a vertical wooden contraption, less than three inches wide and fitted with four “shelves” made of double dowels with the circumference of drinking straws, that fits beneath your cabinets. The tomatoes don’t touch each other and so don’t encourage rotting, as in a bowl or on a platter; they take up no counter space; and they don’t fall into the sink or get crushed among the stinkbug carcasses lining the sill when you jerk down the window so the air-conditioning doesn’t get out.
Like the universe and fluffernutter sandwiches, the rack’s origins are unclear. A carpenter in Winston-Salem made some for a friend, and the friend gave one to me. The carpenter has since vanished, and I have embarked on a search. We’re talking the ideal gift for hostesses, birthdays, and weddings, so I took the rack to farmers markets and cooking-equipment stores and begged complete strangers to make more for me. Somewhere breathes an entrepreneur who will make a zillion dollars on this mind-bogglingly simple structure, and here’s my gift to him or her: Call it the ’Mater Minder.
My German Johnsons are purchased, ferried safely home, and neatly racked. I should be able to sleep now. And I do, until Labor Day, when I begin to worry and grow melancholy about my final tomato of the summer. Is this my last stuffed tomato, the concluding sandwich? Will the farmers market still have them available next week? In my novel Now You Know, the character Libba, who is dying, sadly realizes that, “You can never look back and say, then, that was the last time I rode a bicycle. Or then, that afternoon, was the last time I ever climbed a tree. You can’t pinpoint it. Because you won’t know.” So it is with summer tomatoes, that fruit Eve most likely handed to Adam. Like childhood, and seasons, and General MacArthur, that most summer of summer foods — the tomato — slips away with scant notice.