A Bag of Unwashed Heirloom Tomatoes

Now that says love.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA

This morning two dozen homegrown tomatoes appeared on my doorstep. I arrived home to see Piggly Wiggly bags hanging from my doorknob, and I almost lost control of my lower extremities.

It’s a little early for tomato season, but this is Florida, and apparently someone got an early jump on the horse race.

I come from country people. And country people regard tomatoes as holy things. We get excited about items like tomatoes. Deeply excited.

We are the kind of people who show our love in non-obvious ways using things like vegetables, casseroles, love notes, Dairy Queen products, saturated fat, and passive aggression. Sometimes we use all six.

These tomatoes remind me how things used to be, long before people texted at stoplights.

I brought the bags inside. I opened them. There were tomatoes of every shape and color. Yellows, greens, reds, and even rich purples the color of eggplants.

Purple tomatoes, my mother once told me, are magic tomatoes. “You’ve hit the tomato jackpot,” my mother would say, “if you come across a tomato so full of magic that it’s turning purple.”

Well, I have a thing for tomatoes, magic or otherwise. I’m crazy about them. My mother used to grow them in the Summers of my youth. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire and human hair clippings.

The clippings were mine. Back in those days, my mother cut my hair with dull scissors on our back porch. In fact, this was a primary reason for my traumatic childhood—my haircuts made me look like a cross between Bozo the Clown and a regulation cue ball.

Often, people at school would say things like, “Hey, who cuts your hair? Ronnie Milsap?”

Directly after my weed-whacker haircuts, my mother would gather the hair clippings into a dustpan and scatter them in her garden to protect her ’maters. The idea was that human scent scares away vermin like raccoons, rabbits, and various spouses.

And it worked like a charm. Her tomatoes were county renowned.

Thus, my earliest memories are of overflowing baskets loaded with bright reds, yellows, and magic purples. I’m talking tomatoes so plump they require PG-13 ratings.

So anyway, now you know how country people show their love. Homegrown okra, collards, zipper peas, purple hulls, white corn, green peanuts. And of course, unwashed heirloom tomatoes.

These days, a man can’t find garden-grown fare just anywhere. Most tomatoes, for instance, don’t come from gardens, but from nuclear facilities in Beijing. The tomatoes you get at the store are pink atrocities that taste like possum flop.

So when a man finds a real tomato, he must seize the moment. Which is exactly what I did. The first thing I did was prepare a tomato sandwich the same way my ancestors have been doing since the invention of the rock.

My family has long-standing rules for tomato sandwiches, which are simple:

—Start with Colonial, Bunny, or Sunbeam bread. In a pinch, Wonder Bread will do, but try not to make it a habit. Also, leave whole grains out of this party.

—For mayo: Duke’s or Blue Plate. Avoid Miracle Whip, which science has proven is not actual mayonnaise, but sweetened industrial pump lubricant. And here’s another tip: always use more mayonnaise than your doctor says you should.

—Lastly, your shirt should be ruined by the time you’re finished eating a tomato sandwich. If the shirt is not rendered disgusting, repeat above steps until garment looks like you’ve been in an amateur knife fight.

It might sound silly, but these tomatoes make me remember the sort of folks I come from. And they make me remember how things used to be, long before people texted at stoplights.

A simple tomato helps me recall a time when the only electronic devices we had were made by Whirlpool, Hoover, or General Electric. A time when people still read Sunday papers and actually cared about the classifieds. When the only coffeemaker my mother used was a CorningWare percolator. A time when love wasn’t sent via email, text, status update, or poo emoji, but in Piggly Wiggly bags of produce on your doorknob. Speaking of which, I reached into the Piggly Wiggly bag, and I found a note written on a piece of legal paper. I must’ve missed it earlier.

“Dear Sean,” the note read. “I got these for you, I thought you’d enjoy a brightened day. Love, Anonymous.”

Well.

Dear Whoever You Are, I wrote this piece for you. It’s nothing compared to the sanctity of a tomato, but it will have to do, because right now I need to go change my shirt. Love, Sean.


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