Southern Food

Home grown tomatoesYears ago, I heard a lyric in a honky-tonk in Tennessee that still rings in my memory with a simple yet profound statement about life. It goes like this:

There’s only two things
That money can’t buy
And that’s true love
And home grown tomatoes

As many other details from those times have faded, that little lyric, harvested from a beer bar, has stayed with me. I could go on and on about money and true love but, right now, those home grown tomatoes are really on my mind. It’s late winter, cabin fever is setting in, and my mailbox is filling up with seed catalogs. It’s enough to make love and money seem almost insignificant.

My deep admiration for good tomatoes goes way back. As a child I learned about tomatoes at the feet of a master — my great aunt Arizona. Yep, like the state. She even had a sister named Iowa, but that’s a story for another time.

Arizona was a daughter of the Appalachians — a mountain woman in every way you’re likely to imagine one. She was tough, independent, reverent, and kind. Rarely did a morsel ever make it onto her plate that didn’t come from her garden. She raised chickens, and pigs, and milked a cow until the rumatiz made that impossible. She even hoed her pea patch on the day she came home from the hospital after gall bladder surgery.

Of course, nobody EVER called her Ar-i-zon-a. Folks from my part of the mountains never need four syllables to say anything. Her name was shortened by a breath and she became Ar-zon-ie in formal discourse. The preacher called her that; so did her doctors and the folks in town. We who knew her best took even more liberties with her name, shucked away another syllable, and called her Zonie.

Zonie knew a thing or two about tomatoes. I remember going to the grocery store with her in the winter and watching as she picked up salmon colored orbs for inspection. She always put them back down, usually saying something under her breath about “hot house ‘maters ain’t fit to eat.”

Tomatoes were nearly a year round occupation for Zonie. The work started in the soil with her careful preparation. She was old school about soil, like most every other aspect of her life. Composted manure from the mule barn found its way into the tomato bed. Autumn leaves were added for bulk, and the whole mix was sweetened with white oak ashes burned just for that purpose. I still don’t know what the ashes hoped to accomplish but with years of labor and love, she succeeded in turning her little patch of red Georgia clay into a black loam that looked like it came from Ohio or somewhere else deep in the Midwest.

She grew her tomato plants from seed and was adventurous in her selection. Of course, she kept some of her favorites from year to year, dried on a hand towel in the window and tucked into an empty snuff jar for safe keeping. She constantly traded varieties with her gardening friends and she wasn’t ashamed to buy a few seeds from the Parks Catalog, if a new picture caught her eye. I’m convinced the only two things Zonie ever read cover to cover were the King James Version and the Parks Seed Catalog. She could quote them both chapter and verse, and faithfully, the sunny south facing window sills in her old log house were thick with trays of seedlings by March.

The first few plants found their way into the ground on Good Friday, as a matter of ritual. Most were held back for planting on warmer days when the signs of the moon and zodiac were right, but some kind of garden planting always took place on Good Friday. With that planting came the hope of being able to pick a few tomatoes by the 4th of July. She almost always succeeded in having a few fresh red slices by the 4th, and that was one of the few times she allowed herself a moment of personal pride.

As July came into full flush, the tomatoes came rolling in. Red, yellow, almost black, striped, and even a few green ones. Every family member, friend, neighbor, or casual acquaintance was blessed with brown paper sacks full of Zonie’s jewels. Quart jars were filled with soup, sauce, and just plain old canned ‘maters. Dozens of quarts were preserved each summer until the shelves were full, and the jars that didn’t fit in the pantry were stashed under the guest beds.

Zonie was proud of her 4th of July tomatoes, but she also made great sport out of seeing how late she could keep the harvest going into the fall. Of course, most vines were exhausted by September, but she always had a couple of late plants tucked away in sunny, frost protected spots that lasted longer — sometimes much longer. Once, there were fresh slices on the table at Thanksgiving. She smiled a big, wide grin when that plate made the rounds.

Looking back, it is pretty clear that Zonie’s tomatoes were more than just vegetables – they were tangy red manifestations of her true love. Love and tomatoes were her gifts to those fortunate enough to know her, and like the song said, money could buy neither.

Zonie has been gone for years now, but I still treat seed catalogs with a little more reverence than any other piece of junk mail that arrives in my box. I’ve come to realize that what little gardening I do is a sort of communion — done in some combination of remembrance, hope, and longing for what has gone before. So, this year, like every year, when spring warms my mulch bed, I’ll ritualistically dig half a dozen holes, put some plants in the ground, and wish that she could watch with me, to see how they turn out.

Editor's Note: This story first published February 15, 2012 at the blog of the Georgia Appalachian Studies Center at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, Georgia and is used here with permission. Photo: licensed by on - © GMVozd
Jeff Davis

Jeff Davis

Jeff Davis is the associate vice president for Facilities and director of Auxiliary Services at North Georgia College and State University. A native of Lumpkin County,  he received a BS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and his MS in Management from Georgia Tech. Jeff has “thru-hiked” the Appalachian Trail from Maine back to Georgia.  Jeff lives with his wife, Stephanie and son Aidan, age 11, in the Mill Creek community. They are are active in the Dahlonega United Methodist Church.