Every last one of us should be excited about a news story that says a big tomato center has been dedicated in East Stockton, Calif., to study and improve the erstwhile Love Apple. The part of the story I like best concerns the cultural and academic posture of the tomato staff that has been assembled by Van den Bergh, the food people, to operate this 5 million-smackeroo complex, a 28-member staff of comprehensive geniuses, one of whom is a PhD, twice. There has got to be something to admire in a scholar who endures double indemnity in the realms of erudition to become an expert on tomato sauce. When I have reflected sufficiently I am going to write his autobiography for the Burpee seed catalog.
This two-fisted expert is working with molecular biologists, chemical engineers, food scientists, chemists, and other academic heavyweights who guide the tasty destiny of the world's largest processor of spaghetti sauce and related goods. In short, international efforts go on to find the best tomato, money drips like water, and I could tell them all there is to know and still be home before supper. I, myself, have just squirted the seeds out of a tomato, dried them, and laid them away against March 15, State o' Maine Day and the time to plant a flat of Valiants against next season's limited needs.
After Van den Bergh pays off its high-money big shots, they'll know no more than I do, which is spelled V-a-l-i-a-n-t.
The tomato, too, has come a long way, baby. Van den Bergh is probably too new to remember when the tomato business meant that Mother made ketchup once a year in a 12-quart kettle and cleaned up the green ones by making piccalilly to adorn the Saturday-night beans. We who grew tomatoes to keep Mother busy knew nothing about determinate and indeterminate, and we had three dependable varieties: Erliana, Bonny Best, and John Baer. The Erliana was earliest, but tended to grow crooked, and the others were smooth and about the same.
There was also a Beefsteak, which was pinky rather than red, and a yellow kind that was said to be less acid. That was it; that was the tomato. We grew the John Baer until one year Perez Burr, the florist, said he was trying a new seed called Valiant, and he'd like us to try a box and tell him what we thought. The Valiant became our favorite, and after that we planted only Valiants, but we saved a Valiant for seed and dried them on a sheet of paper every fall, laying them away to start the next March 15.
This tells you that the Valiant was not a hybrid, because seeds from hybrid vegetables don't breed "true," and Valiants did. For many years we bought Valiant seeds, and then all the world went hybrid and we had to save our own. It may well be that I am the only grower still offering Valiant seeds, and in 1996 a friend planted my Valiants in a flowerpot and grew me my 1997 supply. As a tomato grower, I am retired.
We do speak gently of country matters, and the most important thing for a tomato expert to know is how to milk a cow, a trade forced upon me when I was 6 by a loving daddy who wanted me to know many things I would never acquire as a PhD. Blackie was the lady's name, as she was the black variety of the Channel Jerseys and had a cream line two-thirds of the way up the tail. Blackie endured until we had studied Latin four years in high school, and she knew as much as I did about the passive periphrastic.
I conjugated and milked, and Blackie chewed and listened. Daresay she was the only cow ever to appreciate the lactic rhythm of the dactylic hexameter. Anybody with a cow, if I may say so, is ready to plant tomatoes in the spring, and while a college education adorns the mind and can amuse the herd, it is not bucolically essential. Blackie always loved that line: Haec olim memminisse iuvabit. She'd laugh, chortle, guffaw, and shout "Ehue!" I tell you, Latin was fun when Blackie was in the mood. And that's all you need to know about tomatoes.
My grandfather told me a tomato trick, and he was a graduate of the first three weeks of the first school year. After he'd set out his tomato plants, he would walk to the stone wall and select a rock that he could carry easily and would place it beside a tomato plant. He had noticed that any rock overturned during the summer was moist underneath, the result of the sun's heat and the water in the soil. So even when other tomato plants dried in a drought, he'd have one to thrive and bear him the finest pleasure known to the gourmet desires: that first ripe-red tomato to mature on the vine in Maine. The farther north you can grow any fruit or vegetable, the better its flavor. If you could grow a tomato at the North Pole you'd have the finest kind. I would carry a rock, too, and from my grandfather I also learned to take a saltshaker from the house and leave it by my first tomato.
There would come the day that was prelude to tomorrow, and tomorrow that first tomato of the season would achieve destiny. I would pluck, as Gramp always did, the wee darling from its mother stem, bring forth the saltshaker, and there - all alone in the salubrious July sun - I would eat it. I wouldn't care if school ever kept or not, and I would ask myself, "Whatever do you suppose the poor people are doing?" Now I know the answer: They've got a bunch of PhDs looking for the perfect tomato.