Tomatoes ripen & summer arrives

Published 6:02 pm Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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I ate my first tomato sandwich of the year this week and can now declare that summer is officially here. For summer would not be summer without garden-grown tomatoes.

Fresh garden tomatoes take a BLT to heights otherwise impossible, as they do a “dressed” hamburger. Sliced and eaten with fresh butterbeans and corn, they delectable.

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My mother sliced tomatoes open, leaving the pieces attached. She then “stuffed” each with good, southern-style coleslaw (it uses generous quantities of sweet pickle juice and sugar).

In full deference to all the above, however, I find that a sun ripened tomato can best be appreciated as a tomato sandwich. Like a country ham sandwich, it must be eaten on white bread with mayonnaise and a sprinkle of pepper. Nothing more. It’s a tribute to the best of a Tidewater summer.

Tomatoes, like peanuts — and for that matter, our distant or close ancestors — migrated to America. And we can probably thank our Hispanic neighbors for them, as we can so many positive additions to our culture.

It seem that Spanish conquistadors found the tomato in its native setting of Central and South America, an important part of the Aztec diet. The Spaniards were so taken by this acidic fruit that they carried seeds back to Spain. From there the tomato moved rather slowly along the Mediterranean coast where Italy fell head over heels in love with it, and eventually into more northern Europe.

Tomatoes in those days had a bad reputation in some quarters. They were thought to be toxic. They were not, but they apparently facilitated poisoning nonetheless. Pewter was a favored metal for food utensils. It had a very high level of lead, which was indeed toxic and, which caused the death of many a person. The acid in tomatoes lifted the lead from the pewter and was thus thought to be a toxin.

Earthenware changed all that and the tomato eventually could be enjoyed without being feared.

American colonists brought the fruit to our shores. Not unexpectedly, Thomas Jefferson was one of the first — and most prominent — Virginians to introduce the red orb to discriminating Old Dominion palates.

All of which is interesting, but of little import. Who truly cares how it got here? The tomato defines summer cuisine. That enough.

An old friend

When the tomatoes “come on,” as they are now doing, I think of Guy Friddell and, in a way, I guess this column is something of an occasional tribute to a man who greatly influenced me for many years.

Guy was a distinguished Virginia journalist in a day when journalists were permitted to be distinguished. He wrote for the Richmond Times Dispatch and later the Virginian-Pilot. He walked with equal ease among governors, senators, sharecroppers, factory workers and watermen. He loved Virginia, he loved Virginians and he loved the written word, of which he was a master.

And — this being the love that piques my memory of him each summer — he loved tomatoes. Not a summer passed in his later years that Guy didn’t write a column paying tribute to this luscious fruit.

But he should be remembered, and his work reread, for his tributes to his chosen state and its people.

After he died a few years ago, I printed the following from his book “What Is It About Virginia?” It bears repeating, from time to time, as a reminder of the greatness that surrounds us in a truly great state.

“In the sweet, undulating roll of Virginia, you can catch the soft fold of the Blue Ridge mountains in the morning mist, the giddy, gaudy green Easter Egg hills billowing around Albemarle, the lazy James embracing Richmond, the dark green tobacco fields somnolent in the Southside sun, and the long, pale green combers rolling in white thunder on Virginia Beach.”

Go eat a tomato sandwich and celebrate summer in Virginia.