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(BEN CLARKSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(BEN CLARKSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Pleasures of the flesh, or why I love fresh tomatoes from the garden Add to ...

I wrote an ode to toasted bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches in Grade 8. I got an A and my teacher, with much fanfare, read my essay to the class. I think the magic of “warm tomato slices nestled on their bed of lettuce and creamy mayonnaise” was lost on my fellow students. But then, they didn’t live with my dad.

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Dad inherited his gardening genes from his parents. They turned the vacant lot adjoining their house into a garden to help feed their eight children.

Long rows of beans, beets, radishes and corn were replaced as the children moved out by rows of flowers, giant flowers with heads as big a navel oranges. My grandparents, when asked, would produce a Latin name I cannot recall for those flowers. The years of planting rows of vegetables for the table created habits that were hard to break – all those flowers, so lovingly tended, grew in a series of straight, 30-foot rows.

Canadian winters used to be long, and by the standards of the Texans among whom I now live, they still are. We spent many winter months with our outdoor activities defined by a snow shovel in our hands, or ski poles on good days. But come Easter, the ground thawing and the yellow-and-brown-dotted snowbanks melting, and Dad’s gardener genes began to express themselves. As soon as the shed door was ice-free, a different kind of shovel took up residence in his hands.

We kids weren’t pressed into service as Dad loved, and still loves, to dig. At first, he would be turning over chunks of solid, lifeless earth. After a week or two of digging, and above-freezing temperatures, the soil would loosen and squirming worms went about their work. The addition of a load of manure from a friend’s farm would help Dad create a plant nirvana.

Tomatoes are not cold-tolerant plants. They are tender creatures who need shelter and protection from cool Canadian spring nights. Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s birthday at our house often culminated with the planting of the delicate green stalks in the coveted sunny spots next to the house.

Anyone who has eaten, or disdained to eat, the cardboard winter tomatoes, packed in their suspiciously green plastic trays, will appreciate our anticipation. The plants must have known they were valued – they responded with new sprigs almost immediately.

The whole family observed as the flowers turned to green fruit, the green fruit to pink fruit and the pink fruit turned, for lack of a better description, tomato red.

My parents performed daily health checks, coffee cups in hand, on constant patrol for tomato worms, those gluttonous green creatures that could strip stalks clean during a mere evening’s inattention. My two younger brothers saw to it that any worm caught with a mouthful was speedily dispatched in some gruesome fashion. I will spare you the details.

The day the first garden tomato showed itself fully red, Dad and I waited until noon to assume our assigned posts. The morning sun was allowed one last crack at creating tomato perfection.

Dad manned the frying pan. He always cooked my bacon exactly to my liking, curled and dry and brittle. He said a true BLT aficionado appreciates well-done bacon as its texture echoes the toasted bread slices and is an excellent foil for the soft, spongy tomato flesh. I couldn’t help but agree.

Dad hummed as he crisped our slices while I tanned the toast. We may or may not have rinsed the lettuce, as it was an optional addition, a fussy adornment. My poor mother was a shadowy figure during the assembly process, the bulk of her contributions coming as part of the clean-up crew. She never was elevated to a prep team position, mostly because she would rather have had a ham sandwich.

Dad picked the tomato. It was never my job. Dad always picked the tomato. Mom and I would stand silently by while he ferried the fruit from plant to kitchen. A quick rinse under the tap and there it lay, glistening, on the cutting board. I could say that Dad and I took a moment to revel in the tomato’s beauty, drink in its sweet fragrance and admire its gentle curves. But we never did. Impatience as well as the love of gardening are traits we share.

Dad got straight to work, cleanly slitting the delicate skin with a freshly sharpened knife. Buttered toast was spread with mayonnaise, stacked with lettuce, then tomato slices and always a dash of salt and pepper. Bacon topped the lot. The remaining toast piece was added, and the finished product took a final turn on the cutting board. As the BLT was sliced diagonally and slipped onto plates, the tomato had, like a spawning salmon, finally reached the end of the line. Dad and I sat hunched over our respective plates like runners at the starting line. Taking my cue from a man who had grown up with seven siblings, I dug in quickly.

For many years, I have lived far away from my Dad, but we still share the first BLT of the season. And with the advent of Skype, this year I hope to get a visual accompaniment to the sweet sound of crunching bacon.

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