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From "Beginnings," In Praise of Tomatoes
It begins this year even before the calendar turns, as I sit at my kitchen table in late December studying a seed catalog, making selections. This particular catalog, from Tomato Growers Supply Company, features more than two hundred varieties of tomato and I want them all. How could it be otherwise, their names are so seductive? Champion and First Lady, Costoluto Genovese and Wanda's Potato-Top. The Boy family-Toy, Big, Better, Wonder, and Ultra. Names that beg questions: Porter's Pride and Arkansas Traveler. (Who was Porter and of what was he proud? Who was the Arkansan and where was he traveling?) Names that bear homage to love-Marion and Dona. Names that speak of ethnic and regional loyalties: Super Sioux, Dutchman, Plainsman, and Creole. And the beefsteaks, colossi whose names bear witness to the observation by Garrison Keillor that gardening is a competitive sport: Bragger, Whopper, Dinner Plate, Abraham Lincoln (could there be a name more majestic for a tomato?), and, my favorite, Mortgage Lifter. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. I am made drunk by tomatoes.
Still, reason must prevail. Our space is limited and I can't grow them all. Moreover, I have a problem. Because we have little space, I have grown tomatoes in the same place for as long as we have lived in this home-more than six years now. This is not a good practice, and last year it began to catch up with me. Probably, it was before that. My first few years the crops were spectacular, a joy to tend and to reap. I had big fruits and plenty of them, so many that I gave lots away-everyone that visited left with tomatoes-and I made things like ketchup (which didn't help, because instead of having lots of tomatoes I simply had lots of ketchup). But the last few years the yields have been less bountiful, the fruits smaller and fewer, my joy struggling with anxiety.
Last summer was particularly disappointing. The tomatoes were few and far between and the plants sickly, with no vigor. I consulted by phone with my father, a plant pathologist, and he suggested I might have nematodes, microscopic worms that live in the roots and create strings of knotty swellings. The definitive diagnosis is to pull up the plant to look for these swellings, but at first I was hesitant to do this, since it's hard on the plant. Soon afterwards, though, Sunset came out with an article entitled, "When Plants Die Mysteriously . . . Suspect Nematodes." My plants weren't dead yet, but the sick specimen in the illustration looked strikingly similar to those in my yard: stunted in stature and with yellowed, wilting leaves. It was by then mid-August and the plants had pretty much stopped producing, so I yanked one up and sure enough, its roots were strewn with nodules and swellings. I had nematodes.
The remedy is twofold, the first step being to fumigate the soil. In the interest of political correctness, I did inquire at the nursery about possible non-toxic solutions to the problem. They told me I might try seeding the soil with beneficial nematodes; these were meant to displace the harmful nematodes and it might work, they said, but could take years. Because a central part of my approach is to do whatever works, and because I was made to understand that these years I was waiting would be without tomatoes, I considered the second option I was given, which was to buy a bottle of Vapam. Vapam was recommended by most sources I consulted (my father included), but apparently it had some nasty qualities because the chemical was being taken off the market and what was then for sale was all that would ever be available. So I bought it.
Home, I spaded the soil, mixed the Vapam with water and saturated the infected soil of my tomato patch. I then covered the area with black plastic, sealing in the fumes and killing everything in it-plant and animal alike. The soil would be sterilized and next year I could again plant tomatoes.
I left the plastic in place for two weeks, but there was a hole in my attack about which I could do nothing. We have no backyard and my tomato patch consists of a long rectangular planter box in my front yard. It is in the only spot I have with good sunlight and is bounded by my driveway, the sidewalk, and a similar plot that belongs to my neighbor. When first we bought our house, my and my neighbor's two parcels were undifferentiated swaths of grass separating our driveways. After we had lived in our house a few months and I had thought about things, I decided this was the only place I could grow tomatoes, and so I took out the grass. I was pleased when, several months later, my neighbor took out his grass and put in tomatoes, followed later by fava beans, lettuce, eggplants, and a miscellany of other vegetables.
A few years later we restuccoed our house, and shortly thereafter my neighbor restuccoed his-using the same contractor and the same color. Obviously, he and I shared some interests, and in the years since we have traded fruits and vegetables. He has an apricot tree and a tangerine, and he has often brought us bowls of fresh fruit. In the first year we grew tomatoes my crop far exceeded his and I kept him supplied. Talking, however, has been more difficult. My neighbor is seventy-nine years old. He was born-he has told me this repeatedly-in Milwaukee. Albert's family, though, was Italian and by the time he was six his father had earned enough money to return to Italy and buy some land. Whatever English Albert may have learned he apparently forgot, and when, after the Second World War, he and his brother returned to the United States he didn't take up the language again. Albert and I have spent an excruciating half hour confirming that, yes, the Atlanta Braves were playing in the World Series, and our conversations now are pretty much limited to hand signals and exuberant exclamations of "Bella!" whenever the weather is nice. I have never conversed with his wife.
Albert's brother lives across the street from us. Vito's English is better than Albert's, and he and I have been able to talk-in a limited fashion. Vito worked in the construction trades, where he specialized in terrazzo. The walkway leading to his doorstep is terrazzo, as is his front porch, which is pink with a large green star and the word Welcome emblazoned across it. I have never been inside Vito's house, but I imagine there is terrazzo inside as well. This is because of the large quantity of terrazzo in our house. Our house was once owned by Vito's boss, also Italian, and we have terrazzo on our front porch, in our kitchen, and in our garage. (Because the shop they worked in sold marble as well as terrazzo, our house also has marble window sills, a marble fireplace, and marble subflooring-an extravagance I have never quite understood.) Terrazzo is the hardest building material known to man and a glass or dinner plate dropped on it will miraculously powderize. It is also the coldest, and our kitchen floor is therefore high on my wife's list of things she would like someday to replace. Nonetheless, I have many a time borrowed tools from Vito and in return I have given him tomatoes, both plants and fruit. Every morning he drives away for coffee (neither his nor Albert's wife drives) and before he goes he always hails me.
Next to Vito lives a woman who is 104 years old. I have seen this lady only once in the seven years we have lived here. This occurred one night when her housekeeper knocked frantically on our door and said the woman could not get from her chair to her bed and that she, the housekeeper, had recently injured her back and could not help her. Could I? I went over and got her into bed and the thing I remember most is that she was heavier than I would have expected. Frail she was not, but I guess it pays to be sturdy if you are going to live 104 years. Aside from her age, this woman is most well known in our neighborhood for having earned a master's degree while in her seventies and for having lived continuously in her house since she purchased it new in 1922-for two thousand dollars. The latter generates much envy, because prices have risen considerably in the interim.
Next to the 104-year-old are John and Rose, my favorite neighbors. John and Rose, unlike Albert, were born in Italy, in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. There they were also betrothed, but their engagement was interrupted for five years when Rose's father was able to bring his family to the United States. Here Rose became a citizen, and as soon as she could she returned to Italy and married John so that he too could become an American and join her.
John and Rose speak good English, but even so there are many things about them I do not fully understand, rich and wonderful things borne of different upbringings. Their front door, for instance, is rarely used. Friends and family, of which there is a constant stream, all enter through a side door. With the exception of strangers, whom I can now identify by the lost expressions they acquire when wandering bewildered on John and Rose's front steps, use of the front door is apparently reserved for formal occasions. Formal entrants through the front, intimates through the side; it is, perhaps, a permutation of the distinction drawn in the romance languages between the formal and informal forms of you: tú and usted in Spanish, tu and lèi in Italian.
The first few years we lived across from John and Rose, Rose wore nothing but black. It took me some time to realize this-that she only wore black. They had had four sons and before we moved to the neighborhood one had died of leukemia while still a teenager. From then on Rose had worn black, for she was in mourning. That it took me so long to realize this was because I had never lived among people whose clothing conveyed such meaning, and I had never known someone who had entered a formal state of mourning. Slowly, though, I began to understand, and when two years ago I spotted Rose in a blue dress I did realize that I was witnessing a significant event; later when I asked John about it his primary expression was of great relief.
I do know the name of John and Rose's hometown because for many years they ran a nearby deli and pizza shop named Mazara's. They have since sold the shop, but Rose retains the cooking skills she practiced there. One day every summer John drives to a local produce vendor and returns with dozens of lugs of tomatoes, which he stacks on a dolly and trucks inside his house. Rose cooks these into sauce, which they freeze and use year-round. Once, before I'd seen this, I took John a bag of fresh tomatoes. He seemed appreciative, but a little bemused, and a few hours later we were called to our front door by a knock. There stood John and Rose, he holding a large platter with swirls of pasta covered by tomato sauce made from our tomatoes, and she a basket of fresh-baked sesame seed rolls. They were reticent about coming in so we stood on our doorstep and chatted about tomatoes. After a time I went to our kitchen to retrieve a particularly large and handsome Supersteak. That particular tomato remains to this day my magnum opus, bigger than a softball and without a blemish. I was quite proud of it. I had meant only to show them this wonder of nature, to let them, too, bask in its glory, but overwhelmed and a little embarrassed by the richness with which my earlier gift-giving had been rewarded, I suddenly thrust the monster into John's hands and bade him take it. I was a little shocked at myself for doing this, but later as we sat before Rose's meal my qualms began to dissipate. (But not to disappear. In my mind's eye that tomato, the one that got away, has never stopped growing and is now as big as a basketball.) Rose's sauce was exquisite. It consisted, I believe, of little more than tomato and basil, lightly cooked and with a purity of flavor I'd never have thought possible. I have since tried to duplicate that sauce and have come a long way from my throw-in-everything-and-cook-it-all-day beginnings, but Rose's sauce is not to be equalled.
Tomatoes, then, have helped me know my neighbors..
I grew up in a town surrounded by tomatoes. Davis, California, lies fifteen miles west of Sacramento and the Sacramento river, which gave the city its name and drains the great Sacramento valley, bringing water from as far north as Mount Shasta, two hundred miles distant and visible from Davis on a clear, clear day. From the foothills of Mount Shasta to Davis, and for another three hundred miles to the south, the valley is flat. Absolutely flat. And hot. Hot so that heat waves shimmer up from the ground in summer.
These are the things tomatoes like-heat, space, and water-and a great industry has arisen here around the farming and processing of tomatoes. Each year, the average American eats eighty-five pounds of tomatoes, fifteen in the form of fresh, recognizable tomatoes and the remainder in soup, juice, ketchup and the like. (We actually eat more than this, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not count in its statistics the tomatoes I or my neighbors grow.) This amounts to twelve million tons of tomatoes per annum, which are grown on 750 square miles of land. Of all the tomatoes grown in the United States, eighty-five percent are grown in California, and of these a fifth are grown in Yolo County, of which Davis is a part. Each year, over one hundred square miles of Yolo County are planted in tomatoes-equal in their entirety to four times the area of Manhattan.
When I was a child, the fields across from our house were planted with tomatoes and variously with corn, sorghum, and alfalfa. One year there were sheep. The frontiers of these fields have receded as the town has grown, from the nine thousand who lived there in 1960, when I and my family arrived, to its current fifty thousand. But always the town has remained surrounded. From all directions, the roads lead in through fields of tomatoes that are miles on edge.
The people of my hometown have not accepted their encirclement without resistance. Next to the railroad tracks and not far from where I played Little League baseball is a large Hunt's tomato cannery, flanked now by dozens of huge steel storage tanks. The cannery is the town's sole industrial facility and in the summer, when the tomatoes are harvested and the plant never closes, plumes of steam rise from its stacks and its lights illumine the night. It is then that the cannery is the destination of an unending stream of trucks from the fields. Each pulls two flatbed trailers and lashed to each trailer is a fiberglass bin; tomatoes are piled high in each bin and as the trucks wend their way towards the cannery tomatoes roll off and accumulate on and by the sides of the roads. This is how it comes to be that during the harvest the roads to Davis are paved with tomatoes.
After I graduated from high school and during my first few years of college I worked for a small construction company owned by a friend's father. We were engaged in converting farmland to housing, and the first tract I worked on was directly across from the Hunt's cannery. Here, in August and September, the air was redolent with the sweet, cloying smell of tomatoes being cooked by the ton into sauce, paste, and ketchup.
But despite the millions of tomatoes that have been crushed, skinned and stewed at the cannery it is not here that the people of Davis have had their greatest effect on the tomato. Rather, it is across town that their efforts to transform the tomato were first plied in earnest. It was here, at the campus of the University of California, that the notorious "square" tomato was developed. This was a project undertaken to complement the school's earlier work on the mechanical tomato harvester. The harvesters lessened the growers' need for migrant workers-the dark-skinned braceros who were housed in camps, hauled in buses, and spent untold hours bent in the sun-and thereby helped change the social stew. The harvesters, huge contraptions ungainly as peddler's wagons, have insatiable appetites for tomatoes and engulf whole plants at a time in multiple rows; on a quiet summer's night, they can be heard in fleets in the distance, squealing, squeaking, clanking, and grinding as they chew their way through the fields. My sister, on nights long ago, worked on the harvesters, standing for hours at a stretch on narrow gangways next to a rushing river of tomatoes, sorting the green from the red, the bad from the good.
Still today the university tends the tomato. On its faculty are chemists and biochemists, botanists, engineers, and breeders; physiologists, virologists, and pomologists-dozens of -ologists and nonologists with whose children I went to school and whose lives' work is the tomato. Doyen of them all is Charles Rick, who spent half a century studying and collecting tomatoes in all their variety and who still, well into retirement, oversees the Tomato Genetics Resource Center, which makes available to researchers and breeders around the world seeds with thousands of variations of the tomato's one thousand genes.
There is, though, one gene Rick cannot provide. That gene was made, patented, and is now owned by a small biotechnology firm located equidistant from the university and the cannery. Calgene, Inc., was started in 1980 by a group of researchers and investors, and it is here that the people of Davis have mounted their most audacious effort yet to bend the tomato to their will.
The gene Calgene made is the antisense polygalacturonase gene, also called the Flavr Savr. The Flavr Savr is in some ways an attempt to undo much of the university's work; it is meant to redeem the fresh, grocery store tomato, which distributors are now able to supply year-round and undamaged to produce sections throughout the country, but without color, taste or texture, or any resemblance whatsoever to the fruit I grow in my yard. The Flavr Savr gene addresses this problem by slowing the rate at which a tomato softens as it ripens. By delaying softening, Calgene can grow and sell tomatoes that have been allowed to ripen on the vine and don't need to be picked green and gassed to ensure they survive their trip to market.
At least that's the plan.
For nearly a decade, Calgene has been working to obtain regulatory approval to sell its tomato. The company probably now has on its staff as many lawyers as scientists. People have been mixing plant genes for thousands of years (it's what happens when a breeder makes a hybrid), and random new genes create themselves daily. But the Flavr Savr, if approved, will be the first food in the grocery store with a gene designed and built by humans.
If it is successful, there will be many to follow. Waiting for Calgene to pave the regulatory way are companies with genes that will make snap peas sweeter, vegetable oils less saturated, and beans-perhaps-less gassy. And these are only the most plebeian of the possibilities. My father, who studies the use of viruses as a means for introducing genes into plants, speaks of the day when insulin is harvested from corn, and on the radio I have heard of potatoes that produce plastic rather than starch.
Naturally, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of plastic potatoes or vegetables that make their own antifreeze. Concerns have been raised about super plants that could escape farmers' fields and take over the roadsides; about pesticide-equipped plants that have the eventual effect of producing pesticide-resistant bugs (as our doctors have produced antibiotic-resistant bacteria); about modified foods with unexpected nutritional compositions; and about the corporate ownership of DNA. But mostly the concerns are philosophical and tinged with a primal queasiness: We're at the core of life, goes the argument, and shouldn't be mucking around.
Because it is first, and because it will set a precedent, Calgene's tomato is at the focal point of this debate. Boycotts have been planned and suits have been threatened. And the government has tread cautiously. For the Department of Agriculture, Calgene has conducted field trials, demonstrating that its tomato won't take over the universe. For the Food and Drug Administration, it has shown that the Flavr Savr is "substantially equivalent" to a regular tomato, and it has won the right to sell genetically engineered produce without having to label it as such. Genes, said the FDA, won't be considered food additives.
This decision was considered a major victory until Dan Quayle got involved. Quayle trumpeted the policy as an example of the unshackling of American industry from excessive regulation, but in the process he made it sound as if the safety concerns were mere nuisance details that could be disposed of by governmental fiat. That Calgene didn't need to prove its tomato safe could have been construed as an indication that it wasn't safe, and to ward off this possibility the company turned around and asked the FDA to treat the gene as an additive so the tomato could be labeled and said explicitly to be safe. This has caused added delay, and at the outset of this eighth year of the company's regulatory odyssey the FDA has yet to rule and the fate of the Flavr Savr remains in limbo. Whether it will ever reach market-whether it will be a tomato that spearheads the new millennium-is unknown.
And so, tomatoes have changed the people of Davis and the people of Davis have changed the tomato. And now, many years later, I am finding that from this town I have been sent into the world with tomatoes in my heart and tomatoes in my blood.
Rose's Tomato Sauce
for 1½ quarts of sauce
6 pounds fresh ripe globe-type tomatoes
(approximately one dozen large tomatoes) cored and cut in large chunks
1 medium onion, cut in large chunks
4 whole, peeled cloves garlic
½ tablespoon salt
1 handful fresh, whole basil leaves
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
In a large, uncovered heavy pot simmer tomatoes, onion, garlic, and salt for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and pass mixture through food mill, turning until seeds and tomato skins are virtually dry. Add basil and oil to the resulting puree (and, if desired, 1 tablespoon sugar) and return sauce to heat. Simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered, or until thickened.
Serve over spaghetti and top with grated Romano cheese.
From the "Introduction" to Our Fathers
My wife and I went to see Field of Dreams shortly after it came out. Not long before that we had been to visit my father and his wife in Lexington, Kentucky, where they then lived. It was the first time I had visited my father since he had last visited his father a year earlier. My grandfather, who lived his whole life in Oklahoma and who supported himself and his family through a series of such varied occupations as teacher, car dealer, truck driver, and dairyman, was then in the latter stages of congestive heart failure. My father had known his father was sick, but still it was a surprise when days after his arrival his father's condition dramatically worsened and he was hospitalized. He remained lucid, however, and in his final days each of his six children and a great many of his twenty-three grandchildren, thirty-plus great-grandchildren, and myriad other relatives came to say good-bye. He was eighty-five when he died.
When my father returned home he brought with him some photographs he had retrieved from his father's house. He placed these on a wall and there they hung when I visited. I couldn't recall having seen them before and I was riveted by what I saw. The pictures were of my father when he was young, before he had met my mother, before he became a scientist, before he was my father.
In the earliest of the pictures, my father is perhaps eight to ten years old. In one there is snow on the ground covering what would have been red dirt and he is standing in a field holding a .22 rifle; he wears high laced boots with the pants tucked inside, gloves, and a strange fur hat. The negative of the picture must have been reversed in the printing, for my father is holding the gun as if he were left-handed, which he is not. In another photograph from about the same age it is spring or summer: his shirt sleeves are rolled high and he sits at the wheel of an ancient farm tractor against a background of orchard trees; he is driving, or sitting, either one, intently.
Four pictures show my dad in uniform. He joined the national guard at the age of eighteen so he could earn a bit of spending money while he went to college, and was no doubt surprised when, two years into the bargain, President Truman federalized the Oklahoma division and sent it to Korea, where my father landed at Inchon and spent the winter of 1951-52 in subzero weather and mountainous terrain with an ambulance company that "collected" the wounded from the front and transported them to the field hospitals of M.A.S.H. fame. He does not talk about this much.
Most interesting is a picture of my father as a teenager. He is sitting at one end of a sofa and wearing a tee-shirt, work boots, and rolled-up dungarees. He looks to be about seventeen. Opposite him on the sofa is my grandfather, dressed in khakis and looking unperturbed and relaxed-stogie in his mouth, arm draped casually over the sidearm of the sofa. My grandfather appears not to be looking at anything in particular, but my father's eyes are locked on his father, and the look he looks is one only a teenager can give-that look of hot, scornful defiance that indicates without mistake that this boy's father must be the world's biggest horse's ass. I know that look, for I have looked it and been looked at by it-for now I am the father of a teenage son.
All these photos are black and white. But their greater constant is my father. No matter his age, he appears trim. And in all the pictures he bears an expression of competence and utter seriousness. A stranger seeing my father for the first time in these pictures would know without even thinking to ask that here was a man who meant to get where he was going and to do so by the most direct route possible.
I suppose these pictures were still on my mind when we saw Field of Dreams. I'd read the novel-Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella-and found it wonderfully imagined: man hears a voice in a cornfield, builds a baseball field, long-dead ghost players arrive, the author is a fictional character in his own book, the past mingles with the present, and so on. It is a fine book, and when my wife asked what it was about, I told her, "It's about love, and magic, and baseball." To a lesser extent, it is also about a man and his father.
Rarely does a movie add anything worthwhile to a good book. But my wife likes Kevin Costner, who plays Kinsella, and I was curious, so we went. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and I was pleased to find the script hewing true to its source. But the movie adds emphasis and a few twists to the father-son part of the story: the father had been a minor-league catcher as a young man, but the son had only known his father when he was tired and broken, beaten by life; once close, the two had quarreled, the son left home as a teenager, the father died, the two had never reconciled. This background is doled out in bits, but then, in the last scene, after Shoeless Joe and the other apparitions have finished a game and walked off the field, the son's father appears. He is dressed in an old-time uniform and wears an old-time glove, but he is young -"His whole life before him"-innocent, and remarkably handsome: dark-haired, poised, and graceful, a man at the peak of his potential. The son, concealing his own identity, greets his father, introduces him to his family, and the movie ends as the two begin to play catch.
Occasionally I will grow moist-eyed at a movie, usually at some predictably sappy moment. And so it was that I teared up as the father-to-be first appeared to his future son. But as the scene progressed, I found myself crying in earnest-and then crying harder still, until soon I was sobbing, my body shaking and the tears coursing in rivers. Not since I was a child have I cried like that.
The unexpected intensity of my emotion, I think, had to do with the power of the father's appearance as a contemporary of his son-with the father shorn of his usual advantages of experience, power, and authority, but having gained in return the optimism and assuredness of youth. The father and son on an otherwise impossible equal footing.
As I grow older and move through my own years of fatherhood, I spend an increasing amount of time thinking of what my father was doing in his life when he was my age or ages I have been. It is, I suppose, a way of measuring my progress through life. At forty-five my father was a full professor at the University of California, and had been for three years; he was among the most prominent men in his field, having made possible some of the early critical work in genetic engineering, and he was well on his way to eventual election into the National Academy of Sciences. I, at forty-five, can fancy-up a resume, but the truth unadorned is that, as a writer, I've spent a fair amount of time without formal employment, and what I'm "on my way to" is hard to say; I've got a tiny little master's degree, earned at the age of thirty-two (he had his Ph.D. by the time he was twenty-nine-with time out for war), and I've thrice abandoned paths that would have led to doctorates or a medical degree. My father is twenty-four years older than me, his oldest of three children, and I am twenty-nine years older than my son and only child, meaning not only that he embarked on the journey of fatherhood sooner than I, but that he also shouldered a greater weight while doing so. Viewed in this manner, I have fallen short. I do not intend to suggest that I think myself a failure-I've done things my father hasn't, and there are countless other yardsticks against which I could measure myself-but still it is useful to know that in the main I have borne out the principle of regression to the mean, which simply states that after an unusual or remarkable event the next event is likely to be less unusual or remarkable.
Often while performing these gymnastics I will try also to remember who I was or what I was doing at my son's age or some age he has been, and of then trying to recall the impressions I had at that age of my father, of the role he was playing in my life and of his place and actions in the outside world. I do this with a view towards trying better to understand my son and how he must see his father. Yet I fail in these efforts, because though it seems to me that I must be as transparent to my son as I am to myself, that he must know as well as I of my dreams, failings, and inadequacies, when I was sixteen I don't recall having ever thought of my father as a man with self-doubts, unvoiced desires, regrets, or knowledge of error. That is, as a man apart from his role as my father. I was at that age just too preoccupied with myself.
But surely my father harbored such inner turmoils. Today I am certain of it, simply because I now know that such are part of the human condition. But this is knowing something at a rational level only, in the abstract, and try as I might I still can't get more than a layer deep in discerning the inner workings of the man in those pictures and in my memories. And my son, I must also conclude, will find it equally difficult to unravel what he will perceive as the mystery of me.
And yet he will try.