Friday, August 20, 2010

Putting down roots

Salad of Purple Cherokee, Green Zebra, & Roasted Peppers
I'm a slow learner. I can live with that, provided the  emphasis ends up on the noun rather than its descriptor, at least in the main. You might think that slow learners would also be gradual learners, that the rate at which we assimilate knowledge might be in some sense proportional to the time it takes for the process to complete. You might think that, but you would be wrong, as I just learned from the tomato plant.


No, by far the more common experience is a long period of time spent hacking away at a thicket of ignorance, with far more heat than light to show for the effort, punctuated by occasional, if profound, moments of clarity in which the constant drone of spurious noise dies down, cause and effect delineate, and logical patterns emerge. Certainly, that was my experience with physics in high school, calculus in college, most of what I studied in graduate school, and virtually everything I've learned out  in what I'll summarily dub the real world. Watching my youngest daughter learn to ride a bicycle this week, I strongly suspect that the same basic pattern is at work there, too, but whether that indicates an inherited flaw or an immutable law of human behavior ultimately makes no difference: The important thing - and this is equally as true of riding a bicycle as it is of basic calculus  - is to get it. In the long run, getting it will eventually work out for you, provided of course that you do in fact get it.  

Back to my case-in point: Tomatoes. The climate zone (14) in which I live should, by all rights, be tomato mecca: Cool nights and mornings, lots of sunshine, great soils, all very friendly to Mediterranean plants. So, for several years, I have dutifully planted a few tomato seedlings - classic beefsteak styles for burgers and salads, some Roma types for sauce. And for several years, I've grown mediocre tomatoes. Like, really mediocre, as in, often not worth eating. To add insult to injury, the best tomatoes I have ever in my life eaten are grown just up the valley from me, by Dan Magnuson of Soda Rock Farms. (To be fair, Dan's tomatoes are tied for first with a giant heirloom of impossible redness that I picked up at a farmer's market in Aix many years ago, one of my personal Proustian madeleines.) Years go by, each season's crop is as mediocre and fundamentally disappointing as its predecessor; I learn nothing.

So this year, I tried something different: I bought the best rootstock I could, from the guy that I know, with absolute certainty, grows great tomatoes - I bought big, beautiful, heirloom tomato seedlings from Dan. (You might think that that was an obvious solution and you may well be right; but you'd be forgetting that I'm a slow and episodic learner.) We just started picking the first of this year's crop - a year, by the way, characterized by unusual cool and generally lousy growing conditions - and, lo and behold, miracle of miracles, our tomatoes rock. They're not just good, they are frigging awesome. I got excited as soon as I bent down to pick the first one to ripen - a gorgeous Purple Cherokee - and I could smell ripe tomatoes, because the best guide to a fruit's flavor is how it smells before you even cut it; my confidence rose as the blade of my knife pierced the flesh, because you can judge tomato by the way it cuts (the skin should be taught but easily cut, the flesh should feel firm but offer no resistance); I was almost sure when the first slices fell away, and I saw the richness of the color and uniformity of texture all the way through. And then I tasted it and I knew: I grew a kick-ass tomato. A drizzle of olive oil, a dash of vinegar, a pinch of fleur de sel, a grind of pepper, and - feeling more than a little chuffed - a chiffonade of Genovese basil, also from our garden: If there's a finer salad with fewer ingredients, I'd love to know about it.

The moral of the story is that the quality of your rootstock matters. Like I said, this may not be news to you; it certainly doesn't strike me as particularly insightful. And yet, for years, despite all the accumulating evidence, I persisted in my belief that all this sunshine, all this great soil, would inevitably produce great tomatoes, and I went on planting mediocre seedlings, with what I now see were predictably mediocre results.

This year, I learned something. Maybe next year, I'll figure out how to apply the lesson to more than my tomatoes.

No comments:

Post a Comment