The warm, sweet, acidic juice of a homegrown tomato is like no other flavor on this earth.
It is the reason we till the backyard soil and get passionate about tomatoes each summer. Its velvety texture seems to melt in your mouth. Slice and layer it onto fresh bread with a sprinkle of salt and a slather of mayonnaise, then try to remember the last time you tasted anything as delicious.
The day I bought my first tomato plant there was no turning back. Yes, I was discouraged when ravenous deer ate the plants and even more heartbroken when squirrels feasted on my Cherokee Purples, but I consulted an organic farmer friend in Nashville who told me to stick with it, keep learning and remember to be generous with the fish emulsion.
This year I heeded the advice of my friend Tana Comer of Eaton's Creek Organics and bought a dozen of her heirloom plants. I also vowed like a University of Tennessee football fan that this fifth year would be the year I grow what I'd always hoped would be my best crop of Cherokees, Arkansas Travelers, Green Zebras, Mortgage Lifters, Hillbilly, and Sun Golds to date.
Not to sound too much like that Vol fan, but it was time. I had the sun and nice organic plants, and I know how to dote on them like a grandmother -- dousing with fish emulsion in the beginning, checking for signs of mildew, pinching off the small tiny "suckers" that grow up between limbs of the plant, fending off critters and even keeping the dog away. Our beloved old Lab Cooper was so fond of the little Sungold tomatoes he would sit in front of the plant and will those tomatoes to drop on the ground. Maybe in his mind they were tiny tennis balls but I think it was deeper. Cooper had tasted a homegrown Sungold. He knew.
Does growing tomatoes mean I am getting old? (and why you never refrigerate tomatoes)
The reason old people grow tomatoes isn't that they don't have better things to do. It's because, like any hobby they spend time pursuing, they get better with practice. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, they amass the important 10,000 hours of experience.
I am not sure I have put in my 10,000 tomato-growing hours yet but I can tell you my crop this year is my biggest and best to date. Credit that to this scorching summer weather -- tomatoes love the heat -- and the deer fencing we finally installed around the garden's perimeter.
If you're up for it, tomato farming is a sport with benefits, and each season brings different circumstances and challenges. You burn calories tilling the garden, work your brain cells coming up with ways to combat bugs, grubs and plant diseases, and then you get to serve your own tomatoes sliced on burrata at fancy dinner parties. Plus you learn a lot of useful tips, such as you never, ever refrigerate a tomato.
Years ago as food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I interviewed a plant scientist who explained how a tomato works. The gooey gel-like substance inside is the source of the tomato's flavor. The more gel, the more flavor. Some varieties have more than others but all react the same way to cold temperatures, which make them become mushy and mealy. I forget how cool temps must go to change their textures but let's just say the high '30s of your refrigerator are way too cool for the warm-weather loving tomato.
Have you ever tried to store a leftover ripe tomato in the fridge and pulled it out only to discover how miserable it tasted the next day? Just remember there are no good leftovers when it comes to homegrown tomatoes -- you must eat the whole thing or, as I recommend, share with others.
My former newspaper colleague Nancy Roquemore used to bring in a sackful of homegrown tomatoes, a loaf of white bread and a jar of mayonnaise for summertime lunches at her desk. She would pull out one tomato at a time from that grocery bag and slice them right at her desk. Call it economy if you like, but I think it was gastronomy in its finest form. Nancy knew there was no better lunch to be had in Atlanta as that white bread, mayo and homegrown tomato "sammich."
And don't forget the salt. A smidgen of sea salt brings out the deep flavor of ripe tomatoes. Even before cooking with sliced tomatoes, as in the tomato pie recipe I am about to share, salting them beforehand and letting the water drain out is a crucial step. Just ask Nashville caterer Emily Frith, who has been making my tomato pie recipe and selling it to her clientele for years. A creative and intuitive cook, Emily salts and drains sliced tomatoes on paper towels up to 90 minutes before layering them in tomato pies but she doesn't peel them.
My mother did. She thought unpeeled tomatoes were uncivilized and she would carefully peel away the fragile skin before slicing them onto sandwiches. My husband also prefers peeled tomatoes, filling our tea kettle with water and pouring boiling water over a few upside-down tomatoes in the sink. It doesn't take much; that water is just enough to shock the skin off the tomato and makes peeling a breeze.
Can she bake a tomato pie, Billy Boy?
Even though less is more when it comes to homegrown tomatoes, I do love a good tomato pie. Good homegrown tomatoes make a great tomato pie, especially when sliced and salted and with the addition of fresh basil and Parmesan. And bad tomatoes won't make a good one, no matter how much seasoning and cheese you pile on top.
My favorite pies are those with an assortment of tomatoes -- red, yellow, and even Green Zebras for the most colorful presentation. Remember that tomato pies are personal so vary the seasoning and cheeses as you like. Consider making your own pie crust if you have time but a good store-bought brand is just fine.
Really it all boils down to the tomatoes and this steamy, hot time of year when we complain about everything but the tomatoes. In a few months, we'll be missing them, impatiently waiting until next July or August when, like an expectant parent, we'll await those babies ripening on the vine. If you're like me you'll plan the garden, till it, enrich it, sow and water it, wait, and pray. Homegrown tomatoes are a delicious investment I'm willing to make.
And if you don't grow your own, befriend others who do. Local farming is so strong in the South, chances are your neighbor, co-worker or nearby market stand has a few ripe Bradley, Cherokee Purple, Hillbilly, Arkansas Travelers, Green Zebras and Mortgage Lifters turning ripe right now.
So go get em -- here is that fabulous tomato pie recipe I originally got from my friend Ann Evers. It is a recipe I shared years ago in my cookbook, Anne Byrn Saves the Day. I've been tinkering with it and perfecting it ever since. It's easy to assemble and you can crank up the basil flavor by adding a couple tablespoons of pesto on top before baking.
Don't forget to take photos of your tomatoes and pie now, so you can look back on them later when we're all complaining about the cold weather.
Final tomatoes photo credit: Mason Masteka via Wikimedia Commons
Get the homegrown tomato pie recipe