Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

It’s one of my enduring childhood memories, a gift from my mom.  I was seven or eight, my mom in her early thirties, late morning, august sun, we stared at the six full tomato plants we grew behind our garage.  I don’t know if she actually spoke but her urgent and determined movements said, “Let’s do this.”

She wrenched two ripe tomatoes from the vine. I followed her to the kitchen. She rinsed both tomatoes briefly under cool water but they stayed hot the sun.  She gave one to me.  She shook salt on the one she held, and it stuck to what water remained.  Something was going on, but I didn’t know what.  Then she bit into the tomato as if it were an apple, closed her eyes once.  She salted the exposed flesh, took another bite.

That was the best tomato I never ate.

I salted mine, chomped into it, salted the exposed flesh, ate again.  I’d never realized.

Such events of course lead inevitably to the fact tomatoes for the rest of your life will be poignant in their inability to live up to all that a tomato can be.  But onward we go, headlong into another season of tomatoes.  And tomatoes.  And tomatoes. You have to keep trying.

Anticipating this yearly situation, the cascade now upon us, Men’s Journal asked me for a few ways to serve a tomato. We had room for 39, but there are a thousand. I’m glad my editor didn’t insist on a round number. Thirty-nine is perfect. If you’re not a kid anymore, and you don’t have a mom to show you that there things in this world you can stare at forever and never know how amazing they are, then the next best tomato you can eat is one on a Saturday morning, just home from the farmers’ market. Slice slice and put it on a plate. Procede to eat a few ears of corn that are well salted and dripping with butter, on that same plate. Then eat the tomato, mopping up butter and salt.  Sweet corn, acidic-sweet tomato, butter.  Breakfast in August.

My 39 Ways to Eat a Tomato: Men’s Journal

A dozen ideas from the indefatigable Bittman.

An excellent tomato book: The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table by Amy Goldman

And more:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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30 Wonderful responses to “Tomatoes”

  • Wilma de Soto

    “Oh DONNA, Oh DONNA; There is a girl, Donna is her name,” She sure can make me salivate! Bee-YOU-tee-ful!

  • kayenne

    My father shared the same gift to me when I was little. But with sugar, not salt. Until now, it is what I love. The simplicity. The pleasure of that first bite, juices running down my arms.

  • Tammy Kimbler

    Great story! A few years ago I took my then 1 yr old daughter to my community garden to pick tomatoes. I set her next to my big bag of freshly picked heirlooms. I turned around to find her eating the biggest tomato, juice dripping everywhere, huge smile on my face and hers.

  • Kathy

    Awesome! I have a similar memory of my dad — he would bring a salt shaker (the one we took camping) out to the garden, and we’d pick tomatoes, rinse them in the spigot out back, salt them and eat them right there in the backyard. My post farmers market breakfast all summer has been scrambled farm-fresh eggs with chives from my herb patch and big slices of tomato. It’s been too hot for too long here in Central Texas for the plants to set fruit for the past couple of weeks, but I’m looking forward to the fall crop.

  • Tana

    Please name the kinds of tomatoes pictured above. (I love tomatoes that look like Frankenstein’s monster’s head, all stitched up.)

  • Karen J

    Beautiful photo! The look a lot like my “German Gold” heirlooms, but the old guy that I buy them from frequently mislabels his tomatoes.

    My parents also grew 6 plants out back, and one night I had a friend over for a sleepover and we ate all of them while watching that new channel- MTV. Tomato sandwiches with salt & pepper. I’d never seen my dad so mad when he found out the next day.

    How do you stay ahead of the anthracnose, verticillium wilt, blight, and other fungi? Daconil doesn’t seem to be cutting it this year.

  • Russell

    Another tough year in Seattle for tomatoes. Just picked the first of our Early Girls. Normally a 55 day tomato (and ever-faithful emergency backup tomato!) it was trenched in mid-May and in a cold frame until late June. Picked the first ripe ones two days ago on day 98. No ripe ones yet on the Jeunne Flamme and Black Princes. 2011, a year without a Summer.

  • Tom

    To this day, when I get home from work, before I even go in the house, it’s in the backyard for a tomato or two, warm from the sun, and stand over the sink and eat them. Except these days I use a knife ;-)

  • Mantonat

    My parents used to grow tomatoes when I was a kid in Texas, but I never appreciated them. I was always afraid of biting into a worm or a rotten spot. Now I grow my own tomatoes and regret being so squeamish as kid. Tomatoes have been late in Colorado too, but they are finally ripening faster than we can eat them. Making a caprese salad (just salt, tomatoes, basil, and mozz.) and then drinking the juice off the plate afterward is my favorite way to enjoy them.

  • Dan Abraham

    Having been inspired by Area Four in Cambridge, MA, I christened my new smoker with tomatoes. Little roma tomatoes, chopped in half, and smoked in hickory. They were strong, sweet, and smokey, perfect on their own or over pasta.

  • mattgmann

    My garden is in the middle of it’s annual ephemeral tomato state. The excessive heat and humidity combined with my lack of proper attention this year have led to a wreck of a garden. I doubt I’ll be getting much of a second harvest from my dozen tomato plants this year, but the fruit they are producing at the moment is excellent. It seems that hard working, stressed, angry plants grow the best mayters. Thanks for compiling all of the great ideas Rulman.

  • multikulinaria

    I grew tomatoes for the first time on our balcony. It’s such a joy to watch them grow, change color and finally after a moment of awe eat them, eyes closed, sprinkled with nothing then salt and appreciation. Love it!

  • Susan

    My tomatoes (in the SF Bay area) are a disaster this year. It’s too cool and if they ripen at all, they are mushy. I have 12 plants and I’m ready to just rip them out and throw away the fruit. The farmers mkt that draws growers from the central valley supplies my needs nicely. My Dad showed me the way with tomatoes, only he used pepper rather than salt on them. I do to this day.

  • Chris

    I make my wife a little something I call the “Bloody Maria”. I make a fresh Pico de Gallo, with fresh tomatoes and onion, cilantro, lime, salt, pepper, and perhaps a little heat if she’s feeling it, and we enjoy the Pico.

    There is always, however, quite a bit of delicious juice left over, thanks to the salt, as well as bits of onion and cilantro. This is where we introduce some vodka and a cocktail shaker to what most people would toss down the drain. Garnish with a couple olives, some pickled okra, or whatever suits you.

  • Cali

    Tomatoes are my favorite food! I can, and do, eat them morning, noon and night– even after the acidic diet causes the corners of my mouth to crack. Yes, the acid burns, but they taste so good, I just can’t help it.

    While I’m perfectly happy to eat them as is (as my Sweet 100 plant can attest) my favorite is the bacon, tomato and avocado sandwich. It MUST be made with Best Foods/Hellman’s mayo and Wonder thin sandwich bread, no matter how gauche or out of fashion it may be. That’s how Mom made it, and that’s the way I still want it. It needs a light sprinkle of salt and a heavy grind of black pepper to make it perfect.

    I’m like the Forrest Gump of tomatoes. I can name at least 500 ways to eat them, maybe more and will eat a homegrown tomato in any way I can get it. My favorite variety is Cherokee Purple, even though I barely get any off a plant, so I plant two plants so that I get at least six tomatoes in late summer. Some of them are getting big, but the Cherokee Purples aren’t ripe yet. They get really big– some of them coming in at nearly two pounds! One slice per sandwich. I’m really glad I planted a couple of Early Girls as they have been prolific and HUGE this year. The most productive strain in my yard in the northern Sacramento Valley is the Abraham Lincoln.

    Please excuse me as I have to go out in the yard and pick some tomatoes now.

  • commiskaze

    I like the drink cocktail that has a close resemblance to what In Canada would be a Caesar. The first thing I think of is a classic – Calabrese Salad.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    corn and tomatoes on the same plate, YES! But please, grind some good pepper on that corn first. And mop up all the remaining juices with some good bread. That’s Liv’n.

  • melissa

    I am in the middle of the most desperate summer of my life. Temperatures in the 100s for over a month (heat index in the 100s since May), less than a week of rain since 2010 (and they’re saying the drought will probably go into 2012). All I want to do in the world is get out of here and not see another summer for at least 5 years. Even a nice one. Maybe longer than that.

    Tomatoes are one of the few good things about summer. I went to one of my favorite little restaurants for lunch, and as I was hoping, they had gazpacho today. She makes gazpacho when she finds really good tomatoes at the market and oh! It would make you weep it is so beautiful. It got me through the day.

    My parents have a glut of cherry tomatoes this year in their suburban yard in Indiana. They brought baskets and baskets for me when they came to visit. I ate them all in a few days. I didn’t even put them in anything, or put anything on them, I’d just eat a handful every time I went into the kitchen. Amazing.

  • allen

    I had a nice garden tomato and added some veal salt, it made it taste even sweeter.
    And I had a bowl of tomatoes chopped with some watermelon and a little mint, olive oil, salt and basil for a salad. We couldn’t finish the salad so I blended it and had it on spicy crispy fried chicken, like a nice ketchup or sauce for the chicken, very tasty and frugal.

    If your in a blazing hot area use the heat to sun dry some roma tomatoes. I did a batch last year and I still have plenty. Just rehydrate them in the off season in a little warm water.

  • Dan

    your number 13? I thought I invented that, man… sometimes I add two types of cheese: one hard feta-type (but very little of this one) and fresh mozzarela. In absence of basil, dried oregano works great, it’s the taste of greek summers. If I have time, I toast the bread with a little olive oil and rub it with garlic before dicing into small croutons… just had one of these yesterday.

  • Ralph Ewton

    A comment on “Make Gazpacho”. One of the sad things about gazpacho is that it is chilled. Chilling destroys the flavor of fresh tomatoes, remember? So, no more fresh tomato taste. It can, though, be largely restored by chopping (never-refrigerated) garden fresh tomatoes and adding a generous portion to each bowl at serving time. The chill is not taken away completely and now your gazpacho has that fresh tomato taste.

  • Vidas

    Michael, I have a wealth of garden tomatoes this year and used your linked tomato sauce recipe. The sauce tastes great ! Balsamic vinegar is a favorite accent on summer tomatoes and am wondering if it would incorporate well in the tomato sauce recipe. In addition to the fish sauce or as a replacement ? If balsamic would be a good fit – when would I add it ? Before simmering or after as a seasoning ?

  • bigmolar

    I used to carry a salt shaker in my newspaper bag and pick and eat tomatoes from gardens while delivering the papers in the late 50′s and early 60′s. They never looked as good as in Donna’s pictures

  • jpaulun

    I read your story and could not help but be transported to my childhood. I don’t know the year, but I distinctly remember being in the back of my parent’s station wagon and sitting next to my great-grandmother as she bit into a road-side stand tomato. I was shocked. As a child I was a very picky eater. At that age, I could not even fathom someone taking a bite of a tomato as if it were an apple. Yet it was happening right in front of me. To this day I will never forget the look this 94 year old woman had on her face as the juice ran down her chin. It was joy; it was summer; it was life.

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