Our little house in Pittsburgh was wedged between two widowers on the South Side slopes; John to the left, George to the right. George liked to wander out into his adjoining backyard and give me lawn cutting advice. John talked about tomatoes.
John’s house shared a wall with ours, and sometimes we could hear his cane tapping as he walked along on his side. Each evening in the nice weather he tapped his way out to his second-floor porch, accompanied by his big black dog, Midnight. He’d ease into his chair and watch the sun set, the Cathedral of Learning dotting the horizon line, and roads and bridges crisscrossing on the other side of the river.
If my husband Rick was out puttering in the yard in the early evening, John would nod hello with a slight wave to his greeting. If Rick said anything else, John tended to ignore him completely. If I joined Rick in the yard, however, John perked right up and yelled, “Hello, Sherrie!”
I don’t know why John chose to talk to me—he certainly didn’t talk much to anyone those days, but he did—day after day—as I started planting my first garden in fits and starts.
John no longer had a garden. He was too old to tend it, but he had planted a yard full of red tulips—an amazing sight come spring.
One day, John yelled down to me, “In the winter I only eat those canned tomatoes. In the tin can. They have them over at the Mission Market. Good ones.”
I nodded as I hoed and weeded, thinking, “Canned vegetables. Gross.”
“I can only eat the good tomatoes anymore,” he said. “Off the plant, in summer.”
I hadn’t yet grown my own tomatoes, hadn’t fallen in love with the Black Brandywine, hadn’t walked into my garden barefoot with dew dripping all around and morning sun sparkling up everything and tipped a perfectly ripe cherry tomato off the vine and popped it into my mouth—pure summer flavor squirting against my teeth. I didn’t have any idea what John was talking about.
John explained that he used to try to eat those tomatoes they sold at the store when he didn’t have his own fresh ones anymore, but they tasted like rubber. “No taste at all,” he said. He shrugged. John usually didn’t try a hard sell on me. Just gave me daily advice to consider. He looked to the horizon, petted Midnight, silent again for a while as the sky turned pink. Eventually the light shifted and I gathered up my gardening tools. John reiterated, “You should buy the big cans. Better deal. Over at Mission Market.”
I didn’t listen to John. I continued to eat the pale pink tasteless tomatoes served in restaurants’ side salads and sold at the grocery store in the middle of February, even as I grew tasty, juicy heirlooms of all sizes and colors in my garden in the summer.
But slowly, slowly I changed.
I started making and then freezing my own tomato sauce. I started buying big tin cans of organic tomatoes at the East End Coop after the growing season ended. These roasted whole tomatoes got me by until the seedlings went into the ground, until I diligently tied them to their stakes, until they bloomed with their optimistic little yellow flowers and then burst into first green and then red or yellow or maroon or brown or red-and-green striped, fully ripe marvels.
As the tomatoes hit their peak, I gorge; I eat tomatoes until I can’t think straight. Every day at least, I eat one raw; others go into fresh salads or deep-dish tomato pies or into the freezer for future sauce. I eat until they’re gone and the plants have started to turn crusty and brown because I know I won’t be tasting fresh tomatoes again for a year, not until I have the seedlings in my hands again and I think about John.