Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tomatoes and the Writer

I think of myself as a writer, not a gardener, but sometimes the two overlap. When this happens, as it did for me this month, I'm in trouble. The same question posed to the gardener and the writer can elicit very different responses. The cause of this problem is tomatoes.

We have six quite large tomato plants, and we have waited impatiently for a couple of months for the first fruits. The green ones have grown and turned pinkish and now red. The plants are happily prolific, but unfortunately, that means they're producing a lot more tomatoes than we can eat. As my Indian maidservant used to say, Very great problem, Memsahib.

And that it is. Those of us with vegetable gardens face the question of what to do with too many summer squash or tomatoes or beans. Later it will be too many apples, but I digress. My first thought is to give the produce away, but that is where I run into problems, the result strictly of being a writer.

My first thought is to give a few or several to my neighbors. Most of them have children of various sizes, and they tend to eat a lot. But what if my neighbors misconstrue this as the beginning of an unwanted obligation to give something in return? What if they see these large (and I do mean large) ripe, nearly perfect specimens and expect to be charged? Or, suppose they're allergic to tomatoes. I've never heard of anyone being allergic to this fruit (despite what the Supreme Court calls it), but it's possible. Okay, we'll skip the neighbors with children.

What about the neighbors with no children? Will they too suspect the tomatoes carry an implicit obligation to be collected on in future? And if they're not growing their own though they have time and space, do they dislike them? If they do, then the tomatoes will be wasted, or foisted onto someone else.

I could give them to vendors I deal with regularly. My favorite dry cleaning establishment has changed hands a few times, changed the name twice, and changed locations at least once. The women on the counter change every other year. I could give the dry cleaning cashier tomatoes. Is it safe from unexpected consequences?

Some cultures have a longstanding custom of giving a gift in return for anything received. It doesn't have to be of equal value or special or even something purchased. This year I have visions of leaving the dry cleaners with a stack of wire hangers in exchange for my tomatoes.

The corner store is now owned by a very nice couple from Korea, and the wife is an excellent gardener from the looks of her window boxes. If I gave her tomatoes, would she think they were an implicit criticism of the tomatoes in the deli section and take offense? Would I have to explain that I wouldn't be offended if they used them in their sandwiches and sold them, slice by slice?

Suppose I give all my tomatoes away and learn--too late, of course--that I've forgotten someone, a neighbor or friend who has been waiting, hopefully, for fresh, home-grown tomatoes. Would this non-recipient be angry, or hurt, or resentful? How would I find out? I shiver at the thought.

When I was still working I used to take the extra produce into the office. I lined up my tomatoes next to another staff member's cucumbers, someone else's squash, and, of course, a bowl of green beans.

I could become the stealth tomato bomber, leaving them in the dark of night on people's doorsteps. I could set out at midnight, when some people walk their dogs, and deposit one or two on every porch, a gesture of good will and neighborliness. Of course, if the police or anyone else saw me, I could be arrested for vandalism. You see my dilemma?

What does this have to do with writing? I cannot imagine anyone, someone I know or don't know, receiving a bag of large, ripe, luscious tomatoes without having some feeling about it, and those feelings are the stuff of character. And character is story.

I imagine the characters behind the outstretched welcoming hands, or the early morning door opening onto the red surprise sitting next to the morning newspaper, and it's all I can do to stick to the question at hand--disposing of more tomatoes than we can use in a month.

It is a cliche to say that the problems of this world stem not from a lack of material goods but from poor distribution. I would add to that timing. If only tomatoes could grow throughout the year, I would be a happy part-time gardener.

But now, as it is, I have dozens of tomatoes and a new story to write, stocked with characters pondering fruit.


  1. A most thoughtful commentary. I love your analogy. It's so true.

  2. Thanks, Jacquie. If you lived any closer I'd be on my way to your house with a box full of tomatoes.

  3. This made me smile, Susan. Of course a writer would ponder and imagine all the possibilities of giving away some tomatoes. But now the suspense is killing me. What will Susan do with her excess tomatoes?

  4. Thanks, Jan. First, I discourage my husband from picking any for a while. Recipes for tomato pie use several, and then I make a tomato and onion sauce I can freeze. Tonight I'm taking a box of tomatoes to a meeting with five or six other women (and crossing my fingers they don't have gardens).

  5. As someone who also has too many tomatoes this year, there are also BLTs, tomato sauce, pico de gallo salsa, caprese, caprese sandwiches.... I know lots of tomato preparations. I know, as a writer, it's easy to imagine all sorts of scenarios - and it wouldn't be the first time I took someone's musings too seriously - but the easiest way to share the tomato love is to simply ask if anyone wants fresh tomatoes. Ask your neighbors, ask the dry clearner. Or find out if your local food bank could use them. Or there are community organizations that allow gardeners with too much to share with those who have too little. If you need some links, let me know.

  6. Thanks, Anne. You sound like a fellow tomato grower. I forgot about the food bank--I'll head over there today.

  7. An abundance of plenti and the Lord takes care of the meek or not; as they are green of hard work.