Still unable to bring myself to delve too deeply into the contents of the chill-inspiring orange folder, yesterday I did manage to extract the clever color-coded cycle calendar from the inside pocket, albeit with one eye closed, head turned away and wearing the same expression I use when sticking my hand in the garbage disposal to locate an errant cherry pit. The calendar, thoughtfully provided by the IVF coordinator, showed me in big blue letters that I am not to start anything new until the 11th (first up will be Lupron, 10 amps). Until then, I am at liberty to be as carefree as any 35-year-old, hormonally altered, pessimistic woman on the verge of her first IVF cycle can possibly be. In a celebratory mood over the week-and-a-half respite before needles, I knocked back a couple of glasses of Two Buck Chuck (the Shiraz--it was lovely) and had fabulous, unconcerned, non-procreation-related sex with my husband for the first time in ages. Jeebus Cripes, I had forgotten how relaxing it could be.
Inspired by Lawyer Jen's lovely Ode to Spring
, and since I am always looking for good reasons to avoid the rest of the orange folder's many frightening forms, I thought I'd share one of my biggest passions with you; my spiritual retreat, my religion: heirloom tomatoes. I will not attempt to draw any barren/fruitful infertility/tomato parallels here because, though there are so many to draw, I really just don't want to think about infertility right at the moment. For once.
Tomatoes have always held great power over my psyche. As a child, when my peers were bribed to clean their rooms with M&M's or Nacho Cheese Doritos, I was coaxed with the promise of extra 'maters on my dinner salad. These were never home-grown, as our yard lacked any direct sunlight, but even the mealy, cold supermarket variety made my little heart sing with joy.
When J. & I started looking to buy a house in '99, a sunny garden was our one unassailable requirement: we were willing to compromise on layout, number of rooms, neighborhood and state of repair, but we would not
do without a great space for our as-yet-imaginary tomatoes. I figured I'd save a good $300 a year just by growing my own, but mostly I wanted the satisfaction of watching them take root and flourish. I was wrong about the saving money part--containers, dirt and fertilizers are pricey
--but not about the satisfaction.
Our small Oakland bungalow ended up having a perfect, if unconventional, tomato yard. Terraced into the gentle hillside in four substantial levels, there was ample sunshine but poor soil. So we improvised, using giant plastic tubs, Rubbermaid storage containers and, eventually, 30- and 55-gallon trash cans, all carefully perforated for drainage and placed for maximum sun exposure. That first summer, we had nine plants--Brandywine, Stupice, Sun Gold, Black Krim, Green Grape, Golden Persimmon, Costoluto Genovese, Green Zebra and Yellow Pear--and a harvest of gargantuan proportions.
Every warm day, from the moment we put the first plants in soil, I would come home from work, take off my shoes, slip on my flip-flops and head to the yard to commune with the seedlings. Just sitting there, or crouching below them, taking them in. Every day, there would be something new to marvel at: a two-inch overnight growth spurt, the unfurling of leaves, the first flower buds, and then the miniscule green fruits nestled in their tiny green stem-hats. Every year, I've parked myself next to the plants of an evening, willing them to grow, marvelling at their vigor, monitoring every spot and aphid, and being oddly moved
by them. They make me feel both grateful and humble.
When the very first one got around to ripening--a wee Sun Gold, early June 2000--we cut it and fed the halves to each other like cake at a wedding. It was sweet and tart and perfect. By August, we had more tomatoes than any two people and their five closest neighbors could eat. Heedless of excess and mouth sores, the next year we upped our haul to twelve plants, supplementing our internet supply
with several new varieties from a local nursery. The year after that, we added six more garbage cans and made a special trip to a renowned Pasadena nursery--carrying more than three hundred varieties--and carefully drove the five hours back home with the seedlings lounging on our back seat. The year after that, though J. protested vigorously all winter that we should moderate our habits, he quickly fell victim to the siren's call (Thai Pink
, she whispered, and Juliet
). We ended up with twenty-two.
Two years ago, we learned the joys of Aunt Ruby's German Green--a big, full-flavored, juicy and beautiful beefsteak that ripens to the color of a pippin apple, shot through with gold and pink on the blossom end--but only after early blight decimated our first planting and a freak May hailstorm doomed the second. It was a disappointing yield, since our third round didn't get established till June, but I was still out there every day, basking in the tomato love.
Last year, we tried to curb our tomato gluttony as we were planning to be gone from the Fourth of July till mid-August--tomato primetime--and limited ourselves to nineteen plants. As we were driving through Oregon and Washington, Canada and Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, I missed nothing from home except my tomatoes. I worried about them obsessively--what if the automatic drip system broke, or the timer battery died?--and had convinced myself that there would be nothing left but sere yellow husks flopping weakly in bins of dust. I had tomato nightmares and even woke up crying once.
When we were driving lazily through the streets of Salt Lake City, still four days out from our planned return, I realized that I was truly agitated. Partly it was due to my unwelcome menstrual guest, proof of another failed month, but it dawned on me that a large measure of my angst was stemming (apologies; couldn't resist) from the tomato-death fears. Not wanting to admit this, I asked J. what he wanted to do. Stay around Salt Lake City for couple of nights, as planned? Or maybe, just maybe, start heading West as fast as our Accord could take us? He took one look at my pleading face and headed directly for I-80. We were home the next evening.
When we arrived, before unloading the car or even remembering to turn off the burglar alarm, I rushed through the house, tore open the back door and stood in amazement. There were two terraces of unusual trees--eight feet high, deep green--accessorized with what looked to be an odd assortment of colorful christmas tree ornaments. I gawped and sputtered and started to cackle with glee: It was a tomato forest.
The cursory harvest from that first evening--it was pitch dark not half an hour after we arrived--was enough to cover every available surface in our kitchen. There were a dozen Old Germans, each three pounds and the size of a Nerf ball. Czech's Excellent Yellows were dripping from the counters. Sun Golds were spilling forth in nubby orange waves. A hundred Stupices vied for space with twenty Pink Odorikos on our dining table. Mule Teams and Black Princes jousted for room on top of the dryer.
Best tomato harvest ever. And we're just about ready to start again: this year's first seedlings will arrive next week.
(p.s., I'll be down visiting my father for a few days. Should be back posting Monday or Tuesday. If you are feeling the tomato passion, I highly recommend TomatoFest
. Aside from the hundreds of heirloom seed varieties on sale, they organize a very swanky annual tomato love-in in ritzy Carmel Valley, complete with women in garden party attire and all the food and drink you can cram in your gullet. Avoid the avocado-tomato sorbet with parmesan chip, however, if you value your tastebuds.)