Sunday Journal: Labor of love yields bizarre fruit

This summer my husband, Les, and I decided to grow a tomato. In Florida, growing tomatoes is as easy as growing toenails, but here on the foggy Northern California coast, you can't do it without a greenhouse. You can get a tomato bush. You can even get green tomatoes. But you can't make a tomato turn red. It's too cold.

Not wanting to be overly optimistic, I bought a single plant, an Oregon Spring. The lady at the nursery told me they did well here. I walked around my yard searching for the warmest spot. This turned out to be the interior of our compost bin, protected from the wind on three sides by plywood, and with some pretty good stuff to plant in. As a test, I put a thermometer in there on a sunny day. It got up to 106 degrees.

We bought one of those circular wire supports and stuck our tiny plant in the middle. We bought a plant blanket, a woven white thing, to cover our tomato at night when the temperature dipped into the 40s.

Every evening at 6, as the sun sank toward the Pacific, I fastened the lone plant inside its blanket with a clothespin, and weighted the bottom with a plank so the wind wouldn't lift it off.

Every sunny morning at 8, I uncovered it. On foggy mornings, I left the blanket on. In the middle of the compost bin, the contraption looked like a piece of furniture in a long-closed house.

On Saturdays, I watered. The soil here doesn't soak up moisture the way it does in Florida. It has to be persuaded. One gallon dumped over the plant to get the dirt in the mood, a second to soften it up, and a third to actually penetrate.

The plant grew up and out of its wire support. I was excited to read in the New York Times that if I didn't get fruit, we could eat the tomato leaves. The foliage was formerly thought to be poisonous, but no. My tomato had many healthy dark green leaves. Then I read further. The recipe given called for four leaves.

I kept at my routine like an acolyte of some new tomato religion. Uncovered in the a.m. Covered at night. Occasionally I took company out for a visit.

"Do you talk to it?" one friend asked.

"Sort of." What I did was think at it. Hello, tomato. Good night, tomato.

Yellow blossoms appeared, then small green fruit. I didn't let myself get overexcited. The goal was red fruit.

Weeks went by, then one morning, deep in the center of my tomato bush, two tomatoes had turned pale orange.

I watched like a worried mother. Would the squirrels get them before we did? That's what happened to the handful of peaches we'd managed to coax out of our tree.

The two tomatoes turned a darker orange. No squirrels appeared. Nothing bothered my tomato, not even our plant-devouring snails. Probably proof they were poison.

Finally, the tomatoes were red. It was harvest day. I reached into the foliage and twisted first one, then the other off its stem. Something felt strange to my hand. When I lifted the tomatoes into the light, I discovered I had raised monsters. Growing out of each red tomato, like a mutated head, was a second green tomato. They had necks and, worse, faces.

Les took pictures. The friend we sent them to wrote back: "Ewwww."

I'd spent all summer growing these things. I wasn't going to waste them. I sliced the red part, leaving the tiny necks and heads on the cutting board.

My husband watched. He picked up a green head. "Just pop it in your mouth."

"Pop it in your own mouth."

Neither of us did any popping. We ate our two red tomatoes, which were delicious, and consigned the green heads to the compost bucket.

Vegetable reincarnation: come back as something better.

Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, "The Last Resort," will be published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2011. Her website is normawatkins.com.

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Sunday Journal: Labor of love yields bizarre fruit 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 5:30am]

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