Paul Greenberg

The idea that to everything there is a season seems to strike Modern Man as quaint. Pity those who never waited for that sun-dipped time of the year when all gathered on the back porch under the ceiling fan while, one after another, the perfectly prepared products of the family garden were set down with a solid plunk on the old wooden table: string beans and summer squash served with a generous dab of churned butter, black-eyed peas and inevitable okra, butter beans and a platter of chilled green onions just washed and still glistening, and yes, rich, red, juicy, real homegrown tomatoes. With fresh cornbread, of course. And cold buttermilk. For dessert, watermelon. Ah, life was good. It still can be.

Today the American consumer is fed neo-tomatoes packed in cellophane and tasting about the same. To confuse that assembly line product with food is a fit punishment for impatience. For time is the essence of tomatoes as it is of so many other things. Writing and true love, for example.

As for those who think industrial science can duplicate the fruit of time by harvesting tomatoes in the tens of thousands by some arbitrary date on the calendar, and proceeding to run the poor things through 50-foot long chambers of ethylene gas, then soaking them in brine through which sulfur dioxide has bubbled for days in hopes of keeping them fresh.

Well, such poor, deluded souls - the products of a taste-free, colorless, bubble-wrapped era - can have no idea of what a real tomato tastes like. No wonder they think nothing of slicing a tomato with a dull knife, or quartering it like an orange, or - sacrilege! - tossing a tomato in the fridge to ripen. Instead of setting this juiciest of fruits down ever so gently on a windowsill to let time and light do their slow, measured magical thing, unhurried as a sundial.

In these latitudes, the tomato - like barbecue - is a subject on which all have a more than decided opinion. But no words can compare to that first bite of the season. Judge for yourself: Take one Bradley County Pink. Note the vivid color, the simple heft, the way it was made for the human hand. Neither delay nor hurry. Pause to appreciate the ripeness slowly achieved over the past few days. Don't forget to enjoy the scent - with eyes closed. Breathe deeply. Then slice evenly, noting the fine texture. Be careful of the juice. No, don't taste yet. If you must, barely sprinkle with just a little coarse salt, or make a tomato sandwich using two slices of brown bread and very little, just the lightest little hint, of unsalted butter, nothing more. Now. Have the first bite of summer. And you'll know what time itself tastes like. Good appetite!

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.