Garrison Keillor said autumn is the season of nostalgia, and truer words have not been spoken. In the warm sunshine of this early October day, I worked in the yard for a couple of hours. Part of it was puttery work, and part was hot and sweaty. I pulled out the tomato vines – in spite of the nearly-hot weather today, in a few days we may have frost. In any case, the day of the tomatoes is past for this season – the vines are dying and the tomatoes are no longer ripening.
The end of the tomatoes is part of that autumn nostalgia, and this year it feels particularly so. We traveled a good deal this summer, and I just was not able to harvest and use many of the vegetables as thoroughly as I usually do. It makes me feel bad to see how much tomato goodness I let go to waste because I wasn’t here to pick regularly. I gathered what fruit could be salvaged from the plants before I began to cut pieces of stems and pull armfuls out of their supporting fence panels. It took some oomph to get the roots out of the ground – they had reached far and deep into the soil during this good growing season.
I rescued three ripe tomatoes with significant bad places on them and several green tomatoes. I peeled what could be salvaged of the ripe tomatoes, snugged them into a casserole, and inserted pieces of garlic into the flesh. Before bed tonight I’ll drizzle them with some olive oil and shower them with salt before putting them into a very slow oven to roast overnight. They will be delicious heaped on a bagel smeared with cream cheese or mixed with a little pasta.
The green tomatoes will be sliced, tossed in buttermilk and then in cornmeal, and fried, and as I work on this job my thoughts will be focused equally on not getting too spattered with hot fat and on my grandmothers and my mother, who between them have spent many decades standing over stoves doing the same thing – tending the batches of browning tomatoes and slapping the hands of the dear ones who try to snitch a hot slice from the plate of finished disks. Actually, we don’t do it exactly the same way, I suppose. Ways of cooking evolve through the generations. I learned to use the buttermilk from my sister-in-law’s mom, and I like the little bit of extra meal that clings to the tomatoes because of that moisture. I think I salt the finished product more heavily than my forbears, too. But that is no matter – we are still of one tribe – using what we know and what we have to make something good for those in our orbit.
I wonder, will my daughter someday stand over a hot cast iron skillet and fry green tomatoes? I hope she will. She’ll add her own twist, too, which will make her tomatoes both her own and her mother’s and her grandmother’s and her great-grandmothers’ and so on, stretching back time out of mind. This is one of the main reasons I think it is so important that we learn to cook something – that skill of tending to such a basic need of loved ones is preciously fragile. Neglect can break a chain of knowledge that reaches back many, many generations, and the loss of it is rarely appreciated until it is too late.
Is there something you cook from your family’s heritage?