Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes,
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy -
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes . . .
Like a Frenchman waiting for the first Beaujolais of the season to arrive from southern Burgundy, aficionados have started to sample the first, early bounty of southeastern Arkansas this time of year: not yet full-bodied but maturing, rosy-hued but pink if held up to the light just right, not quite astringent but a little puckerish, ordinary but their presumption will amuse, personally planted and tended and harvested but God-produced tomatoes.
The official season didn't begin until last weekend's festival at little but storied Warren, Ark., known to an elite band of connoisseurs as the tomato capital of the world. This was the 52nd anniversary of the Pink Tomato Festival, and word was there hasn't been a better-tasting year for the true fruit of the vine: the incomparable Bradley County Pink, as succulent to the taste as it is ugly to the eye. That's the rule with this rare species of tomato in these knowing parts: The worse they look, the better they taste.
The different, thoroughly commercialized products called tomatoes in this country have been scientifically developed to be shipped long distances and still look, but only look, good. Nothing else counts: taste, aroma, feel - in short, just about everything that makes a tomato a tomato. Or used to.
In some respects, like diet, returning to the past would be progress. Just look at what the statistics say are some of he country's biggest health problems: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes - all linked to diet.
But I come here not to prescribe the tomato but to celebrate it. An honest-to-goodness tomato is the best of both worlds, culinary and medicinal. People really ought to toast Salud! Na zdorovye! To Your Health! over a vintage 2008 Bradley County pink the way they do over a choice Australian shiraz.
In another example of Gresham's Law in awful action, the best of tomatoes has been reduced to a rarity that has to be smuggled out of little ol' Warren, Ark., like bootleg hooch. It says something about how poor in taste this rich country is that the Bradley County Pink should be almost a secret beyond the borders of Arkansas, aka the Natural State.
I hope I'm not revealing any state secret when I note that the best, freshest Arkansas tomatoes - like the Bradley County Pink and Amelia - explain the remarkable air of promise in our children, the beauty of our women, the virility of our men. All are brought out, like the blush of the tomato, in the ripening fullness of time.
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!