My love of tomatoes began with my great-aunt Stella. “Got a taste for tomatoes and vinegars,” she used to say. She had another name for tomatoes too–“wolf apples.” I don’t know where she got it–I was a little girl then and didn’t question my elders, but being of a fantastical turn of mind, I thought of werewolves ’cause I only knew about regular apples and if there were wolf apples, I figured werewolves must eat them.
Ma Stell grew a passel of tomato plants on a napkin of land next to her house on the levee. Big, fat, scarlet globes hanging from vines, giving off that pepperish green scent. She’d pick a couple, slice them, add salt, pepper, sprinkle on white vinegar, and, during the humid south Louisiana afternoons, we’d sit in the shade of the screen porch and enjoy our tomatoes. That was my introduction to the delectable tomato. Sliced, with salt, pepper, and vinegar is still my favorite way to eat them–only I’ve kicked up to balsamic vinegar. And it’s not a respectable green salad if there’s no tomato in it. Believe it or not, some restaurants will serve a green salad with just lettuce and dressing. The horror!
After college, living on my own in Southern California, I encountered cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, pear-shaped yellow tomatoes, heritage tomatoes! Got my first taste of those at a fancy restaurant–a purple and a yellow sliced and served with balsamic dressing and a little endive. Up until then, I’d been content with the flavorful red–when I could find them. I wasn’t too happy with the pretty but less than flavorful “wolf apples” at the local grocery store. The farmer’s market became my friend. Nothing enlivens the acidic depths of a salad like the lush honeyed flavor of grape tomatoes.
Did you know tomatoes used to be considered poisonous? According to Wikipedia, the tomato plant belongs to the deadly nightshade family, and was erroneously thought to be poisonous. But that idea was quickly dispelled once people discovered the luscious taste of the succulent fruit.
Tomatoes dress up so well. Quartered into salads, (except the pear-shaped yellows should be left whole or only sliced in half), they shimmer like jewels against the green melange of lettuces. Scoop out some fat ones, fill with guacamole (chop and mix the scooped out part with guacamole), stick a chip or two on top, and you’ve got a party tray. But the nicest thing about the tomato is it takes me back to those lazy afternoons on Ma Stell’s screen porch.