Summers in New England are short and hot, two months of days filled with ninety-degree heat and blistering sun, “scorchers” for short. The growing season in Massachusetts is similarly short, starting in late April and coming to a close early in September. Not many vegetables or fruits grow naturally or particularly well in the New England climate, but my grandfather seemed to have a knack for growing the most beautiful, succulent beefsteak tomatoes in the hot summer months. Grampy had a green thumb and what seemed like a magical ability to make everything we planted grow into the biggest, tastiest vegetable possible. From a young age my summers were spent barefoot in the dusty, dry brown dirt of his garden tending to the tomato plants and the multitude of other vegetables in the garden.
Summer mornings began early as I rode my bicycle to Grampy’s house, my bicycle tires soaked with the sweet morning dew of the grass. As I arrived at the house I would sprint around to the backyard on the uneven brick trail to the garden, barely keeping my balance as I ran. Each and every morning without exception Grampy would beat me to the garden, making me wonder at times if he ever left it. From behind the six-foot tall wall of pole beans I would hear “Hey-a Kev!” usually followed by “Grab that bucket up there and bring it down, its time to pick!”
Kicking my shoes off so as to avoid my mother’s aggravation at another pair of ruined sneakers, I would run through the damp grass into the dry, soft soil of the garden, covering my feet and turning them one shade darker than before. In between the tall bushes of tomatoes I could barely distinguish Grampy’s rosy cheeks from the ripe tomatoes hanging on the vines.
Each summer the tomatoes were planted in late May. Grampy and I would spend hours on our knees in the dirt. With the end of a broomstick, Grampy would poke a hole and behind him I would follow popping one tomato seedling in each hole and covering it up with dirt. For months, the tomatoes would grow only as vines. The long fuzzy green stalks would rise until they fell over on themselves, at which point Grampy would grab a ball of twine (seemingly older than him) and we would tie each stalk up to a pole. These were the hardest weeks to stay focused and visit everyday as nothing ever seemed to change and no tomatoes could be seen growing. Some days I wouldn’t make it over to the garden, getting caught up with my friends from down the street or it would be too hot to go out into the sun and work in the garden. When I was young missing a day in the garden seemed of no consequence to me, but as the years passed I realized that these were some of a very precious few days I had to spend with my grandfather.
As August rolled around and the air seemed to hang heavy with humidity, small green tomatoes began popping up on the vines, barely distinguishable from the vines themselves. Excitement rose from both Grampy and I as we anticipated the fruits of our labor finally becoming ripe. Each day Grampy and I would eagerly look through the garden, scampering from vine to vine searching for the first shade of orange or red to catch our eyes. Everyday we seemed to wait with bated breath, imagining the tangy, juicy flesh of the first red ripe tomato. Year in and year out the process never changed, even when we had learned enough that we could predict the harvest accurately within a day or two.
On those late August days when the first beefsteak tomato, hanging heavy on the vine finally turned fire-engine red, Grampy and I were there, waiting, ready to pick it and savor a tomato so far superior to store-bought tomatoes that it would make eating tomatoes during the winter completely unsatisfying. Grampy would grab his old, worn cutting board from the house and a knife from the drawer and slice into the tomato. With each stroke of the knife, the tomatoes juice would flow like a river and the slices as thick and heavy as a cut of steak would fall onto the cutting board with a slap. Grampy and I would pull up a bench to the table by the garden and sit down to a one-ingredient feast. With a sprinkle of salt the feast was ready. Sitting in the hot, sticky heat Grampy and I would slurp down the juicy slices of tomato, barely taking the time to chew as we gorged ourselves on tomatoes the size of softballs.
While a tomato, sliced and seasoned with salt may sound like a very weak example of a recipe, the true ingredients of this dinner are measured through time and patience, not tablespoons and cups. The complex flavors of a perfectly ripe, fresh from the vine tomato must be experienced to fully understand and appreciate its beauty. The time spent growing the tomatoes, and more importantly the time spent quietly working in the garden next to my grandfather, add a flavor all their own to this very special meal. The tomato seeds my grandfather and I planted year in and year out are called beefsteak heirloom seeds, heirloom meaning they have been saved from past crops and passed down from generation to generation in my family. Like the seeds the experiences and wisdom of planting and nurturing a garden are also heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation through precious time spent together. Like the tomatoes, my time with Grampy could not last forever and as with the end of the harvest, so too did our time together come to a sad but inevitable end . And while sorrow and dissatisfaction may set in with the absence of home grown tomatoes or time with Grampy in the garden or in general, each and every year the tomatoes bloom again from small seedlings to tall stalks and heavy fruit. And with each growing season and harvest Grampy’s rosy cheeks come out again in the bright crimson skin of the ripe tomatoes, making his presence forever felt.
Kevin Keane is a freshman at American University studying international relations in the School of International Service. He enjoys cooking, eating, and anything to do with Boston Sports.
4 to 6 servings
• 3 vine-ripe tomatoes, 1/4-inch thick slices
• 1 pound fresh mozzarella, 1/4-inch thick slices
• 20 to 30 leaves (about 1 bunch) fresh basil
• Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
• Coarse salt and pepper
Layer alternating slices of tomatoes and mozzarella, adding a basil leaf between each, on a large, shallow platter. Drizzle the salad with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Recipe from: Rachel Ray via foodnetwork.com