Ripe tomatoes and other simple pleasures

By Karen Dill • Special to The Smoky Mountain News

August in the Appalachian Mountains is a time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Summer is winding down, and we look for simple and free escapes to get through the end of the hot days. Wading in a cool stream, walking barefoot in the heavy dew of the early morning and eating ripe tomatoes straight off the vine are only a few of the ways to enjoy August in the mountains. Meals are ones that are easy to prepare, take up little energy and utilize ripe vegetables from tired gardens that are winding down in the August heat.

My first child was born in late August 1980. I can still remember the sultry heat, the heaviness of my body, and the sweet smell of ripe tomatoes that seemed to be forever in my mind. Indeed I felt like a large tomato plant in August; lumbering, awkward and overladen with fruit (or child). I seemed to crave ripe tomato sandwiches and never tired of cups of cornbread and milk for supper. Though I was living in another country far away from the mountains of my childhood, my body seemed to crave the simple dishes of those long-ago Augusts.

I had always had a love affair with the tomato. I loved a sliced tomato for breakfast with scrambled eggs and with fried corn for supper. When we did not have sliced bread (light bread it was called), I would carry a tomato biscuit in my lunch sack to Bethel Elementary. I easily tolerated the teasing from the kids with sliced bread, as there are a few other lunches with leftover biscuits filled with sliced ham, bacon and even tomatoes.

Ripe tomatoes seem to mark the downhill march of summer. The air is heavy with heat and the crisp cool mornings of early summer have gone. Gardens are crowded with vegetables ready for picking. It is a bountiful time, a time of abundance and pregnant fullness. It is a time to sit back and enjoy the simple gifts of the earth.

As a child growing up in Bethel, August also meant work. My father would harvest our family garden and my mother would spend days in the sweltering kitchen canning tomatoes, green beans and preserving all of the other vegetables from the garden. And as if that were not enough, my father would lead me to the tomato fields in our valley to pick the remains of the crop and later to the tomato packing houses to gather the culls that didn’t make the cut in some imaginary tomato pageant.

My father’s friend, Way Abel, had several large tomato fields and a tomato packing house in Bethel. Earnest Beck grew tomatoes for profit also. These men were my father’s old friends and he was not too proud to ask for free tomatoes from their fields. It was in these fields that I learned the lessons of hard work. I would head to the fields with an old wooden wagon with the promise of a dollar from my father if I could fill up that wagon with good tomatoes. Sometimes, he would throw in an extra quarter for a job well done — but not every time as my daddy seemed to understand the power of intermittent reinforcement.

As the summer sun beat down on my head, I would trudge through the rows of tomatoes and pick the leftovers. I learned to pick carefully as a rotten tomato would easily squish in my hand and leave a horrible odor. I was a rather nervous child and when I could not wash my hands, I became anxious (my mother blamed my bad nerves on her side of the family). So I would try desperately to pick the red orbs with great care. During these long hot treks down each row, I decided that I wanted a future that required reading books rather than hard physical labor.

Despite the hard work involved in the harvesting of tomatoes, I grew up loving a good garden-grown tomato. My father would eat tomatoes like apples as he sat in the grass under a shade tree at the end of a tomato row. I preferred my tomatoes sliced and salted for a tomato sandwich. And I was very particular about the making of that sandwich.

The tomato had to be warm and just picked from the garden. The bread had to be white (preferably Bunny Bread). The mayonnaise (best to be Ann Page from the local A&P store in Canton) had to be thickly slathered on both sides of the bread. The tomato slices were salted. The sandwich was then neatly sliced in half, and if we were lucky enough to have some barbequed potato chips, these could be placed inside the sandwich. This addition came later in my life while I was in high school but has added a nice crunch to the standard tomato sandwich ever since. The simple pleasure of constructing a really good tomato sandwich is hard to beat.

As summer farmers well know, tomato sandwiches are only a few of the many delightful dishes from the August garden. Zucchini and yellow squash are so plentiful that neighbors have been known to leave them on doorsteps in the dead of night to avoid being caught. And because my father could not bear to waste a single vegetable, he continued to bring me baskets of those green missiles long after I had moved out of my childhood home to my own rented house on the “backside” of Pigeon River.

I was teaching 2nd grade in Canton and had a full schedule, but my father would show up on my doorstep many evenings in August with baskets of vegetables that begged to be canned, frozen or baked up into breads. I quickly learned how to bake zucchini bread and had filled a small freezer by September. He once appeared on my porch with a basket of over-ripe bananas that had given to him by a local grocer, and I stayed up until dawn making endless loaves of banana bread. I was after all, my father’s daughter. Waste not, want not.

I think that I learned the necessity of frugality and the joy of simplicity from my parents. They had few material goods but found so much pleasure from the gifts of the earth. My mother loved to grow flowers and in the summer, our yard was abloom with colorful flower carpets. My father loved to carve and restore anything that was old and ready to be thrown away. He once made me a set of clay marbles from a clay mud mixture that we dug from a nearby creek. It took days of baking in the hot sun, but the clay marbles were a treasure that I kept for years. These were reminiscent of the simple toys of his childhood.

I can still see my parents as they sat at the kitchen table with its red-checked oil tablecloth at the end of a long day in August. Fresh vegetables would grace the table as bright offerings at an altar. My father would crumble up his cornbread in buttermilk and my mother would chop a slice of onion to add to her cornbread and milk. Talk about the preparation of new vegetables from the garden would be the daily topic of conversation.

Many years and travels later, I cannot resist the allure of plentiful vegetables in August. I will wake up in the early morning planning the evening meal around the vegetables that demand to be picked. I love to see the dinner table laden with bowls of boiled okra, fried corn, squash, sliced tomatoes, boiled potatoes, and green beans. All this meal needs is a cake of corn bread and maybe some onions.

This year I have decided to try a dish that I recently heard about on an NPR show — tomato pie. It sounded a little crazy and the recipe is definitely not low-calorie, but I have decided that it is worth a try. It requires mayonnaise so it can’t be too bad even though it will be hard to rival the standard sandwich.

Fresh vegetables from the garden will accompany this strange pie. Cornfield beans are plentiful, and I fix them in the traditional mountain manner with streaked meat. A side dish of corn is simple to prepare. I scrap the kernels off the cob and saute them with some onions and chopped bell peppers in some butter. I would love to serve a side of cornbread and milk but compromise with a cornbread salad that also utilizes fresh vegetables and is pretty when constructed in a glass bowl. Blueberry lemon pound cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or dash of whipped cream will finish off this meal. This meal is a medley of simple foods that seems to inspire a quiet sense of contentment and gratitude for the earth and its remarkable bounties.

Simple pleasures are plentiful the year round in our mountains, but August seems to be a special time to enjoy them. On warm sultry days and cool evenings, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for life in a beautiful place with four distinct seasons and every imaginable type of weather. I am grateful for babies born in this hot month. I am grateful for a simple childhood that keeps me humble. I am grateful for beautiful ripe tomatoes and simple pleasures that living in the mountains bring.

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