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HOMEGROWN TOMATOES

August 1, 2020

Last Monday, a visitor wearing a medical mask came to our door. She brought us a grocery bag full of vine ripe tomatoes grown by her husband. The man has a debilitating muscular disease that requires the use of a motorized scooter. He grew the plants in raised boxes on his deck. The tomatoes were just right, the best I have had this summer. Clare and I enjoyed tasty tomato sandwiches all week.

In ordinary times, I would have purchased tomatoes from Bellew’s Market on Garner Road in Spartanburg. Cherokee purple is my favorite heirloom variety. But when good friends show up at our front door with homegrown tomatoes, we are thankful. Mid-summer is the time of year when tomatoes are at their peak in color and in flavor in the Upstate.

Before I retired, I was often asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explained. “I have more fresh vegetables without a garden than I ever had when I planted a garden of my own.” 

Church members kindly shared the bounty of their gardens with our household.  Sometimes we would know who to thank.  At other times, these gifts were left, anonymously, on our doorstep. 

Dave Sikma is an Illinois farmer who plants two dozen or more tomato plants in his garden. Dave is our daughter Betsy’s father-in-law. He told me that the first time Betsy visited their farm, she plucked several bright green tomatoes from his plants and prepared fried green tomatoes for the family. Dave was not so impressed with this Southern delicacy. His opinion was that the fruit is best when left on the vine to ripen as the good Lord intended.

When Clare and I traveled to our family vacation at Pawleys Island, we often stopped for lunch at Thomas Café, one of our favorite eateries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Clare usually ordered shrimp and grits while I selected flounder. Both plates were served with a side of fried green tomatoes.

A lifelong devotee of this distinctly Southern fare, I would search high and low for unripe tomatoes during our week at Pawleys. At roadside stands in the summertime green tomatoes are as scarce as hen’s teeth. In hot weather, even tomatoes that are picked green in the early morning soon start turning pink. Good fried tomatoes require the use of bright green fruit that is as firm as a potato. Absolutely no pink!

Here is my recipe for fried green tomatoes. Caution: these have a kick, and the preparation is messy. The flavor is worth it!

Kirk’s Spicy Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic Southern recipe. There are many variations. This is our favorite.

4 large green tomatoes, (all green, no pink, hard as a rock)

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cornmeal

Crushed red pepper flakes

Garlic powder

Coarsely ground salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Red pepper hummus

Jalapeño pimento cheese

Sour cream or goat cheese

Vegetable oil for frying

Dredging:

•           Slice tomatoes 1/2 inch thick. Discard the ends.

•           You need to use four bowls.

•           Into the first bowl pour only half of the buttermilk and dip tomato slices.

•           Into the second bowl, put the flour only. Lightly dip tomato slices coating both sides.

•           Into the third bowl whisk eggs and the rest of the buttermilk together, and dip tomato slices coating both sides.

•           In the fourth bowl mix cornmeal with red pepper flakes, garlic powder, coarsely ground salt, and freshly ground pepper, and thoroughly cover tomato slices on both sides.

Cooking:

•           In a large skillet, pour vegetable oil (enough so that there is 1/2 inch of oil in the pan) and bring to medium heat.

•           Place tomato slices, coated in batter, into the frying pan in small batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Fry a few at a time.

•           Do not crowd the tomatoes. Give them plenty of room! They should not touch each other.

•           When the tomatoes are lightly brown, flip and fry them on the other side.

•           Drain them on paper towels.

Serving:

•           On individual plates, spoon a heaping tablespoon of roasted red pepper hummus.

•           Place the first fried green tomato in the hummus.

•           Stack the fried green tomatoes three or four high with a spoonful of jalapeño pimento cheese between slices.

•           Top with a dollop of sour cream.  Goat cheese is also good on top.

We always enjoy delicious red tomatoes served in various ways. Some folks swear by tomato pie. Others prefer the summer delight in salads of many varieties.

My specialty is Neely Soggy Tomato Sandwiches. In years past, this was my sandwich of choice at the annual Neely Family Fourth of July Picnic. In our home, we enjoy this favorite kitchen sink sandwich as long tomatoes are in season.

2 vine-ripe tomatoes

Duke’s Real Mayonnaise

6 slices of white bread

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

•           Take six slices of white bread. Don’t use anything that is good for you – just plain ole white sandwich bread.

•           Slather Duke’s Real Mayonnaise heavily on all six slices. Only use Duke’s. Use about twice as much mayonnaise as you ordinarily would.

•           Grind fresh black pepper on all six pieces of bread.

•           Stack thinly-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes three layers deep on three pieces of the bread.

•           Salt the tomato slices.

•           Mash – not lightly press – the remaining three pieces of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomatoes.

•           Turn the sandwiches over and mash again.

•           Cut the three sandwiches in half. Let them come to room temperature.

•           Stand over the kitchen sink to catch the drips as you enjoy these juicy sandwiches.

Until colonial times, some people thought the tasty red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown exclusively as an ornamental garden plant.

The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to an unusual plant family. A nightshade plant, from the Latin word solanum, it includes the matura, mandrake, and belladonna, all considered poisonous.

Take it from me. Tomatoes are not poisonous!

Close relatives are paprika, chili pepper, potato, tobacco, and petunia. The unpleasant odor of tomato leaves and stems contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for human consumption.

Tomatoes originated as wild plants in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Gradually, they were carried north into Central America. Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, the tomato was slow to be adopted as a cultivated plant by Native Americans. Mayans used the fruit in their cooking. Tomatoes were grown in Mexico by the sixteenth century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century introduced the tomato to Europe. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and eat tomatoes. Later the tomato was grown in English and Spanish gardens, not as food, but as a curiosity. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour, translated as love apple in English.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina. They may have been introduced to our area from the Caribbean. By the mid-eighteenth century, tomatoes were grown on numerous Carolina plantations. Even then, they may have only been of ornamental interest.

Thomas Jefferson learned of the vegetable in France. The progressive Virginia farmer grew them at Monticello as early as 1781. Tomatoes were grown as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, no doubt because of French influence.

Tomatoes are now the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, the plants have a reputation for out-producing the needs of the grower, thereby encouraging the sharing of garden bounty.

A friend who tends her garden with care recently reported a serious problem with her tomatoes. “I found healthy plants at my local garden shop. I put them in good soil with fertilizer and adequate water. The plants produced lovely big tomatoes, but they would not turn red. I waited and waited until they finally started changing color. Lo and behold! I had mistakenly purchased a golden yellow variety. They were never going to turn red! Still, they are delicious.”

Tomatoes are regarded as one of the healthiest foods in our diet.  Rich in vitamins A and C, tomatoes contain lycopene, a chemical that gives them, as well as watermelons and red grapefruit, their color. Lycopene, an antioxidant, helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

 Although the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is also considered a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts claim that we need five to ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. At this time of year, we should all take advantage of local homegrown tomatoes to meet our daily quota.  

Tomatoes are my special favorite.  Several years ago, I wrote these lines as an expression of my gratitude.

God is great. God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His hand we all are fed.

Give us, Lord, our daily bread;

Wholegrain bread, rye, or lite,

A sourdough loaf, or just plain white.

And please, dear Lord, some Duke’s mayonnaise,

And homegrown tomatoes for these summer days.

Add lettuce, and bacon, or maybe cheese,

But especially, Lord, I ask You please,

For vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced thick and round,

To make the best sandwich I’ve ever found.

On days that grow weary with muggy heat,

A soggy tomato sandwich just can’t be beat.

With a tall glass of something cold to drink,

I’ll eat my lunch over the kitchen sink.

I’m grateful for corn, that good Silver Queen,

For cantaloupe, peaches, and fresh green beans,

For squash, and okra, and small red potatoes,

But nothing is better than homegrown tomatoes.

God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

I know His kindness never ends

When given tomatoes by special friends.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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