Jun 28 2009




I’m in the middle of a small war right now with the neighborhood stray cat. He has decided that the best place to hang out while stalking rabbits is in the middle of my tomato plants. This is an issue for me because a) I like to see bunnies on my lawn and I don’t particularly want them killed and b) the cat does a little more than just sit in the garden, if you know what I mean. And while I’m all about homegrown food and organic gardening, finding cat droppings in the middle of my tomato patch is a little TOO organic for me.

My mother has always been an avid gardener. I’ll never forget the year she planted–in a fit of misguided enthusiasm–not one, not two, but SIX hills of zucchini. I believe our backyard accounted for about 5% of the world’s production of zucchini that year. But once I left home I lost whatever skills I might have gleaned. I lived in a series of run-down and dark apartments and tended to be more concerned with finding the money for dinner than trying to actually grow it. My thumb never got any greener than a few pots of herbs on a kitchen windowsill.

This changed when I moved south. Suddenly I was living in houses, not apartments, and living in a climate with a 286-day growing season, not a 120-day one. I became what you might call a “Darwinian” gardener–the plants in my garden must survive in a climate of benign neglect, with rare attempts at weeding or pruning, and only infrequent watering. Lettuce is allowed to bolt and re-seed. Compost is left to its own devices. I currently have a rather vigorous pumpkin vine growing where last year’s jack-o-lantern fell from the porch and was allowed to return to the earth unhindered. But there is one type of plant that is exempt from my general mistreatment–the tomato.

I still remember the first time I ever tasted southern Sweet 100s cherry tomatoes as one of the defining foodie moments of my life. Tomatoes that you could eat like candy! I was beyond shocked, and immediately went looking at farmer supply stores for plants. In an unconscious imitation of my mother’s earlier enthusiasm, I bought six. I think I was responsible for about 5% of the world’s production of cherry tomatoes that year. Since that time, I have always had tomatoes in my southern garden–in a full vegetable bed if I had the space and time, or in large pots on the porch if I didn’t. I grew Sweet 100’s for their taste and Better Boys because that is what the neighbors grew. And then one day I saw a picture of a Costoluto Genovese in a seed catalog. It was a princess of a tomato, an heirloom with a lovely lobed shape so that when sliced, each slice had beautifully scalloped edges. It was supposed to be an excellent slicing tomato, and an excellent sauce tomato, but not a tomato with a long shelf life. This last caveat did not phase me because I lived, at the time, in a tiny house with no air conditioning. So in the summertime nothing had a shelf life longer than about six hours.

For the first time in my life, I fell in love with a food–with a specific kind of food. With a specific variety of a specific kind of food. It was the mere sight of the Costoluto Genovese tomato that made me decide to try growing tomatoes from seed. I started combing seed catalogs for other heirlooms. Suddenly tomatoes were not those mushy, watery, tasteless things you slid off your burgers. They were fun and exciting and pretty and–oh yeah–tasted good. I tried a rainbow of cultivars from Yellow Pears to Brandywine Pinks to Cherokee Purples (which get my vote as the ugliest tomato ever). I grew San Marzanos and Principe Borgheses with the idea that I’d do a lot of canning (I never got around to it). I grew a few yellow and orange tomato varieties and ended up with the most lovely tomato salads. I toyed with the idea of growing “Green Zebras”¯ and “Russian Blacks” but lost my nerve.

It isn’t always clear what the term “heirloom”¯ means. In general, the term implies that the cultivar has been around for more than fifty years. It also implies that the plants are open-pollinated (you know, by bees and things). But this isn’t always the case–some hybrids (which require controlled pollination) like yellow pears are considered heirlooms, possibly because they are simply so pretty. Open pollination comes with its own set of considerations. Heirloom tomatoes can’t be bred for disease resistance, for example. Their yield is more unpredictable since they depend on a supply of willing and happy pollinators. Heirloom varieties also must be picked before they become fully ripe, since they are not bred for long shelf lives and once ripe, must be eaten almost immediately.

There are an astonishing number of “heirloom”¯ tomato varieties available–some of them with stories as colorful as their skins. My favorite is the “Mortgage Lifter”, aka “Radiator Charlie.”¯ It sounds like a thug from a Chicago mob but it was so named, apocryphally, by a man named MC Byles, who sold the cultivar for a dollar a plant to pay off his house when his radiator business went under during the Depression. Alas, Mortgage Lifters and Brandywine Pinks–the two heirlooms that may be responsible for the current craze in heirloom varieties–defied my gardening skills. They are “beefteak”¯ tomatoes–the kind with very large fruit that is very solid and meaty, with small seed cavities. I learned after several frustrating years that I did not have the mentality to grow goliath-sized beefsteak tomatoes–I invariably lost them to the bugs, worms, moths and caterpillars that flourish in the south as easily as do the plants. I also found, through trial and error, that cultivars that tend towards odd shapes–the pointed San Marzanos, for example, and even my lovely lobed Costoluto Genovese–often developed cracks and spots if, as often happened, I was not too diligent about watering.

The tomatoes the neighborhood cat finds so useful for stalking (among other things) are Tomosas and Sweet 100s; what I think of as my “old reliables.” (A term I adopted from a children’s book called Junket about a city family that buys a farm without knowing anything about farming).  I planted them because it is a new house and a new garden and there was nothing established. They are more forgiving about watering (or the lack thereof) and they are quite forgiving about wildlife. It is a struggle just to keep the beds relatively cat- and rabbit- free without fussing over a tomato that came from a plant someone found in a holler somewhere in the Appalachian mountains.

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Although, I believe I have one of those, because this year a good friend dropped off a flat of 16 different heirloom tomato plants–no single one alike.  They were the leftovers from some “combat obesity” drive, if you can believe it, although by the time they got to me they were all looking a little spindly and forlorn in their red plastic beer cups. Here’s a list of the plants:

Black (deep red)

Black from Tula– regular leaf, 8-12oz., purple-black, great flavor, loves heat

Black Cherry– black (deep red), regular leaf, abundant

Bicolor, white, green-when-ripe, yellow, or orange

Big Rainbow– regular leaf, deep gold with red splashes, good flavor, fair yield

Earl of Edgecombe– regular leaf, orange color, big producer, 6-12oz, grows in clusters, heat and humidity tolerant

Super Snow White– ivory, regular leaf, large, ~75days to production

Isis Candy– regular leaf, yellow-gold color, very large, low yield, ~80 days to production


Eva Purple Ball– regular leaf, deep pink, uniform color, disease and bug resistant

Giant Belgium– regular leaf, pink color, high yields

Good for Tomato Paste/Sauce

Rio Grande– regular leaf, red, very productive, great flavor, good for paste

Marianne’s Peace– dark pink, potato leaf, very productive, good for paste

San Marzano– a variety of plum tomato considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomatoes in the world, gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples in 1770, thinner and pointier than Roma tomatoes, first grown in volcanic soil of Mt.Vesuvius


Red Calabash-regular leaf, fluted, red color, 69-80 days to production

Camp Joy– red, regular leaf, strong vines, ~60 days to production

Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red-really red, robust, 8oz. globes

Tondo Liscio– smooth, round, Italian eating tomato, red color

Cuor di Bue– red color, also known as the ”Bulls Heart” and ”Giant Ox Heart” tomato. Superb tasting, fleshy,”Ox Heart” beef tomato, so called because of its size and shape, a lovely slicing tomato due to it’s meaty flesh, and few seeds, unbeatable in salads or with slices of fresh Mozzarella and basil, fruits typically 150-180g each in weight, but can get much larger.

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Honestly. “Clint Eastwood Rowdy Red?” I wanted to grow these just because of the names.  So far, they are looking pretty good.

If you are interested in growing heirloom tomatoes, you are in luck. There are a couple of local nurseries that grow varieties especially at home here in the hot and humid Southeast. Shelton Herb Farm is where I go for my Sweet 100s plants. (Do not buy six plants unless you are trying to feed a small country).

Shelton Herb Farm
340 Goodman Road
Leland, NC 28451
(off Route 17)

The local farmers’ markets, such as the Riverfront market on Saturdays downtown, or the Pender County market on Wednesday mornings at Poplar Grove also have a few local farms who supply heirloom vegetables (I picked up a gorgeous bunch of multicolored carrots at the Riverfront Market last Saturday that were almost too pretty to eat). And while it is long past the time when you could start your tomatoes from seed, there are at least two seed suppliers that are excellent resources for heirloom varieties if you want to plan for next year:

Seed Savers Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In the meantime, you can always raid your neighbor’s garden. The tomatoes will still be green for at least another two weeks, but even green tomatoes have their uses:

Fried Green Tomatoes:

2 lb Green tomatoes
4 ea Eggs
1 1/4 c Corn meal
3/4 c Water
1/4 c Minced chives
1 tb Salt
1/4 ts Pepper, fresh ground
1/4 c Butter or margarine

Slice the tomatoes 1/2 inch thick, but do not peel or core. Drain
well between several thicknesses of paper toweling until most of the
moisture of the tomatoes is absorbed. While the tomatoes are
draining, make a batter by beating the eggs until light, then mixing
in the corn meal, water, minced chives, salt and pepper. In a large,
heavy iron skillet, heat the butter or margarine until bubbly. Dip
the tomato slices into batter, and brown quickly on both sides. Serve
at once.

Jun 27 2009

Gatsby’s Library

The Great Gatsby

I’ve been re-reading Gatsby. And oddly enough, although I am quite convinced that this is the perfect novel, and despite the fact that I’m on my third or fourth reading, and that I am usually inclined to remember when a book talks about rooms full of books, I remembered almost nothing about this odd little scene in Gatsby’s library.

I suppose everyone who prides themselves on their personal library has secretly imagined their books as a kind of ultra-flattering self-portrait. Who hasn’t gazed at their own bookshelves and imagined, smugly, what impressive conclusions a stranger doing the same might draw about their their owner?  Fitzgerald has a rather biting, unkind comment about this sort of self-conceit in this scene, which occurs before the narrator has ever spoken to Gatbsy. Up until this moment, he knows his neighbor only from a late evening sighting on the lawn, and a collection of wild rumors about his exploits during the Great War.

The bar, where we glanced first, was crowded but Gatsby was not there. She couldn’t find him from the top of the steps, and he wasn’t on the veranda. On a chance we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.

A stout, middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.

“About what?”

He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.

“About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”

“The books?”

He nodded.

“Absolutely real–have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our skepticism for granted he rushed to the bookcasses and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

Jun 16 2009

A is for Austen, B is for Bronte

The Thirteenth TaleA woman describes her father’s bookshop, which “In the opinion of our bank manager, it is an indulgence, one that my father’s successes entitles him to. Yet in reality–my father’s reality and mine; I don’t pretend reality is the same for everyone–the shop is the very heart of the affair.”

A is for Austen, B is for Bronte, C is for Charles and D is for Dickens. I learned my alphaget in this shop. My father walking along the shelves, me in his arms, explaining alphabetization at the same time as he taught me to spell. I learned to write there, too: copying out names and titles onto index cards that are still there in our filing box, thirty years later. The shop was both my home and my job. It was a better school for me than school ever was, and afterward it was my own private university. It was my life.”

–Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale (Atria, 2006)

Jun 14 2009

A comedy of errors

comedyoferrorsSo at the beginning of this year I made a new year’s resolution to myself to see each of Shakespeare’s plays at least once during the course of the year–either live or on dvd.  It’s the kind of resolution that has been tons of fun to pursue, an exercise in self-indulgences, rather than self-restraint.

Some of the plays, however, are proving elusive. As it turns out, Pericles is not high up on anyone’s list of Shakespeare-that-must-be-performed. So to help keep my resolution, I procured for myself a copy of the Arkangel Shakespeare, a massive box of full audio productions of each play on CD.  And I’m going through them one by one, approximately in order of when they were written.

I’ve already written about some of them:

Henry VI, parts i, ii, and iii

Richard III

Richard III may well be my favorite Shakespeare play, my distressing introduction notwithstanding.

But now I am onto A Comedy of Errors, which after Richard seems positively fluffy.  And I made several discoveries:

First, in the Arkangel production David Tennant plays Antipholus of Syracuse, and even just listening to the performance, without actually seeing it, it was awfully hard not to think “That’s the Doctor!”  For a few scenes I amused myself with wondering where they would put the TARDIS in the set.

More importantly, though, was the discovery that Comedy of Errors relies heavily on visual cues and mistaken impressions and what my friend Lev calls “smart staging.”  I had already had trouble deciphering the fight scenes in the Henry VI plays, so you can imagine my confusion here.

Nevertheless, the play had its moments–the point where Dromio (of Syracuse) is describing to his master the “beauties” of a kitchen wench that is convinced they are to be married is pretty hilarious:


Then she bears some breadth?


No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?


Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

Antipholus finds this a great joke, and goes on to name all the countries, to which Dromio responds with some awful insult against the lady’s looks for each.  America, “…embellished with/ rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich/aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole/ armadoes of caracks to be ballast…” is to be found on the poor woman’s nose. I’m sure by the end of the bit Shakespeare’s audiences were howling.  (You can read the full exchange here)

I did get to see an actual production of the play, put on by our Youth Shakespeare Company for our local outdoor “Shakespeare on the Green” festival. Everyone in the company is under 18. The actors playing the two Dromios were around 12. This took some getting used to–especially since the actors playing the two Antipholus’ were closer to 16 or 17. (And the girl playing the ugly kitchen maid was at least this old). So the physical comedy was a little strange. And the play had been edited slightly to get rid of some of the more salacious inuendos (including the entire exchange above), which did little to alleviate the oddity of the scenes in any case. But perhaps it was in keeping. Certianly in Shakespeare’s time many of the parts–especially the female parts–would have been played by young pretty boys.

In any case, I was glad to actually see the performance, and to have a visual in my mind for when I listened, for the second time, to the audio.  After becoming so involved with Richard III, Comedy of Errors was perhaps doomed to pale. But the ready wit, and the clever, playful language was still very much in evidence. I was not moved, but I was certainly entertained.