Tomatoes are not equal
There are tomatoes and there are tomatoes.
A few weeks ago we had our first dinner of cornbread, buttermilk and sliced tomatoes. A few weeks ago, after scouring a few farmers markets, I casually purchased two pounds of tomatoes. I guess I was desperate, because I had my doubts, and when we cut the first, Vertis and I shook our heads, and Ronda and his family dined on the others.
Ronda is a raccoon, and her family of three teenage coons live under our back patio, along with a possum we call Peter.
When it comes to our early summer dinner of cornbread, buttermilk and sliced tomatoes, you should know that Vertis cornbread does not contain a grain of sugar. The late Richard Allin, a former Arkansas Gazette columnist who wrote Our Town, said (only partly jokingly) that putting sugar in cornbread was one of the causes of the Civil War. It might be a little strong, but if you put sugar in your cornbread, you make a cake, not cornbread.
But let’s move on to tomatoes.
I spent my preteen and teenage years on a 20-acre farm about a mile from Norphlet, and we grew everything you could imagine, including tomatoes.
Fast forward to 2022. There were plenty of tomatoes hitting the markets earlier this summer, but not the particularly tasty ones that come from farms in Arkansas. These tomatoes might not look quite as good, but they taste like the land.
Allow me to describe those that Ronda’s family received. First of all, the appearance will deceive you. These tomatoes were uniformly large, bright red and perfectly shaped. However, if you picked one up and squeezed it lightly, it felt like cardboard. Then, if you looked under the counter where they are displayed, there was a box with professionally painted “tomatoes” on the side.
These tomatoes can be just as nutritious, but they don’t even measure up when it comes to taste. So after that misfire, I started skipping the cardboard tomatoes and was on the lookout for the real little and skinny Arkansas ones that make our summers a little more bearable. That’s when a good friend from Moro Bay (in Bradley County, the state’s tomato capital) brought us a can of Arkansas tomatoes.
Tomatoes aren’t all I look for in the produce section of grocery stores and farmers’ markets. I like blueberries on my morning raisin bran, and the little blue balls at some grocery stores don’t taste like blueberries from the farm in Arkansas. Strawberries are in the same category, but when Little Rock’s Trio’s offers an Arkansas Strawberry Shortcake on its menu, it’s worth the trip.
If you’re just trying to get food in your stomach to get you through the day, eat the bland foods mentioned above. But if you consider real garden fruits and vegetables a summer meal, be careful what you buy. Look carefully where the fruit or vegetable was grown, and if the blueberry package says “Grown in the USA”, remember that California is in the USA and the tomatoes you see on some local shelves are probably not from Farmer Brown in Bradley. County.
My first paid job was riding in the back of a tractor in a peach orchard, wiggling a barrel of wormer while the owner sprayed his peaches. I was 11 and the 50 cents an hour he paid me bought me a ticket and popcorn for the double feature at the Ritz Theater in El Dorado.
And I was forever spoiled by being able to eat a ripe peach right off the tree.
There are places around the state where you can pick your own, and Woody’s Peach Orchard near Hampton in Calhoun County can show you the difference in taste. While you’re in the area, Suzanne’s Fruit Farm will cook you blueberries that actually taste like blueberries.
Living on a farm means living off the land, and at Christmas my mother would say, “Richard, I need two cups of black walnuts for my Christmas fudge. I knew that meant pulling a tow bag full of black nuts out from under the house and getting a hammer to knock the black husks off, then crack the nuts.
Black walnuts have nothing to do with English walnuts from the grocery store, which you can crack with your bare hands. Not hardly. Black walnuts are hard, and it takes several solid licks to even open a crack, and several more to get down to the core. I don’t think I’ve ever had an intact half and very few quarters. Getting two cups of black walnuts was almost a morning’s work, but wow. The difference between English walnuts and Arkansas black walnuts is like cardboard tomatoes and raw tomatoes.
And when you buy a cantaloupe, smell it. If it doesn’t have that golden sheen and strong cantaloupe smell, move on. And don’t buy a watermelon with a brown stem. It will probably be overripe. A green stalk and a clear shot will go a long way in giving you a perfectly ripe melon. Don’t buy any before July 4, because it probably won’t be an Arkansas melon. And yes, Hope watermelons are worth the wait.
Living in the natural state has many advantages, but sometimes you have to work to enjoy it. When these Arkansas tomatoes from our friend in Moro Bay were put on the table with buttermilk and cornbread, we smiled and had dinner.
Email Richard Mason at [email protected]