They lie overtop one another, intertwining with abandon. Some vines climb the buddleia bushes, while others stretch down the stone wall toward the driveway. Three of the four volunteer seedlings I transplanted from the compost pit in early June are bearing cherry-sized fruit, and new spots of orange and red appear among their tangled greenery morning and afternoon with astonishing profligacy. From where I sit, I can look over the top of my computer to a window shelf full of tomatoes I just picked an hour ago, with their parent plants visible through the window beyond. Especially with all the rain we’ve been having, few of them would make it to dead ripeness on the vine without attracting the covetous attention of pillbug, slug or hungry chipmunk.
Seedlings that sprouted in the compost pit since I removed the first wave of volunteers have flourished, too. On the upper side, growing out of the low rock wall surrounding Fort Garbage – as my dad calls it – the most successful of these volunteers is birthing fist-sized tomatoes right down among the rotting melon rinds, coffee grounds, corn shucks, and – yes – freshly discarded tomato parts. On my way up to the main house this morning, I plucked two that had almost reached full ripeness, marveling at the festive melange of growth and decay.
That particular plant hides its fruit in the pit for a reason: its upper branches were stripped by a deer or woodchuck a couple of weeks ago. There haven’t been any such depredations since, however. The leaves aren’t exactly palatable, and I imagine whoever chomped on them suffered severe stomach cramps for hours. Not for nothing are tomatoes called love apples!
Before truck-farming Amish moved into the neighboring valley about twelve years ago, we kept huge vegetable gardens, most of which had to be fenced against the animals. Only squash, tomatoes and potatoes could be grown without any protection other than a good hay mulch. One of the things I really liked about tomatoes was the way that, given a steady supply of chicken manure and hay, they could happily inhabit the very same spot year after year. We started seedlings indoors in February, but feral volunteers would quite often outstrip the tender transplants. It was always exciting to see what kind of fruit they’d bear, since we grew so many varieties.
Perhaps it says something about our lax approach to gardening that we could almost depend on volunteers. But at the peak of tomato season, it’s impossible to keep ahead of the flood. My mother used to can close to a hundred quarts a year, and we boys still found enough rotten ones to turn the otherwise dull job of harvesting into juicy warfare.
And now, again, that red flood is in full spate. Boxes of tomatoes can be had from the Amish for a few dollars each. The super-sweet cherry tomatoes from my herb/butterfly garden vie with the Macintosh apples in my fridge for my attention at snack time (which for me is pretty much all the time). We dry some, but otherwise just gorge, slicing tomatoes into sandwiches and salads, adding them to almost every dish. And what don’t tomatoes go well with? For ’tis the season too for basil, cilantro, eggplant, zucchini, peppers . . . a hundred variations on a half-dozen themes.
Like the potato, the tomato is a native of South America. So what did Italians eat before they had tomatoes? They ate lots and lots of eggplant, apparently. Here’s a simple oven dish of Mediterranean provenance that you could make without tomatoes – but I’m not sure why you’d want to.
Dave’s Vaguely Greek Eggplant and Black Pepper Casserole
Saute together over medium heat:
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 large sweet pepper, diced
1 medium eggplant, chopped
In my opinion, eggplant is like tofu: more or less tasteless by itself, but good for sopping up and retaining whatever oils and juices you cook it with. So use good olive oil, and err on the side of generosity!
Add and cook ten more minutes, still on medium heat, until eggplants start to break down:
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 t salt
up to 1 full t ground black pepper, depending on freshness (and your own tolerance)
optional fresh herbs, especially thyme (I’d be cautious with rosemary or parsley here, though. Black pepper in such quantities admits of few competitors.)
Chuck everything into a 3-qt casserole dish and pour the custard overtop:
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cottage cheese
2 egg yolks
Bake covered at 375 (F.) for 45 minutes. Serve with fresh corn on the cob and a green salad topped with fresh tomatoes.