As a kid, all my favorite summer foods were red. Red freezer pops, red Kool-Aid, red Popscicles. At times, my mother insisted that I eat something not laced with Red 40. And more often than not, those food items came out of Grandpa’s garden.
As with my man-made food choices, my vegetables of choice were also of a crimson hue. In June, bushels of strawberries found their way into the house. Some were from Grandpa, but many came from a day spent picking them at Schartner Farms just down the road. As the grownups unloaded the car, I would grab the berries by the stem, rinse them under cold tap water, and eat them. It was an ruthlessly efficient process as I shoved as many of the sweet fruits into my maw as possible.
Soon, an adult would inevitably notice me making a pretty significant dent in the pile on the counters. “Stop that,” I’d be chided. “If you keep eating those, you’ll get hives.”
I never got hives. But I did get plenty of strawberry preserves in the freezer to eat all year long.
Around this time of year, my second-favorite red fruit started showing up in the kitchen: tomatoes. The smaller grape variety were harvested from the small garden my Mom kept just off the deck. Those were put into salads or eaten as a snack.
The big ones came from Grandpa. Even as a kid growing up in a rural area, the size and shape of the tomatoes that didn’t come from the grocery store shocked me. They had lumps and bumps. Some were small—others were the size of softballs. At first, a few would show up. In a couple weeks’ time, Grandpa was bringing them in by the bagful. Those were often boiled down in a steamy, day-long process of making pasta sauce (great fun in an un-air-conditioned house in July), but that didn’t appeal to me like the homemade strawberry jam did.
I was into tomatoes when they were freshly cut, dressed only with salt and pepper. Not like we do it today in our Food Network, Top Chef-obsessed culture. We didn’t add sea salt from exotic locales—even kosher salt wasn’t found in our home. We didn’t have freshly-made mozzarella cheese or a chiffonade of basil. I ate my raw tomatoes adorned only with straight table salt and the pre-ground black pepper you get only in diners today. And it was so good.
The salt drew out the juice and gave the fruit some sweetness. The pepper gave it a little bit of heat and made me sneeze if I lifted the slice to my mouth too soon after dispensing the spice from its shaker. The tomatoes were cool and refreshing on hot days. Perhaps even more so than a red freezer pop.
Tonight, I treated myself to a dinner of sliced tomatoes (from the grocery store, sadly, but still grown in New England according to their sticker) and some Narragansett Creamery Mozzarella. I used sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper. I’m a little fancier than I was before, but it still brought me back to summers in the woods.