Waiting for Tomatoes

Tomatoes – it runs in my Maryland family’s veins. We had not one, but three commercial tomato packing houses in my family.

Millard Fillmore Bayless, my great-grandmother’s uncle, ran one of the family packing houses in Perryman, while her father ran one in Aberdeen. Here in the 1920 census, it lists that they canned corn, though family lore also states that they canned tomatoes.  Ancestry.com.

It’s at this time of year that the waiting begins. The plants are slipped into the ground, and daily vigilance ensues. Will that one be ripe tomorrow? Or will it fall into the clutches of the groundhog, that slut who takes one bite and lets the otherwise perfect fruit fall to the ground?

Manhattan tomato and strawberry gardening. RL Fifield 2011.

I never had a store-bought canned tomato until I moved out. My grandfather’s garden, probably about the size of a New York grocery store (that’s about ¼ Target for you out of towners) yielded enough heady red goodness for my mother to can. I remember the process, the kettle boiling water for the canner, the blanching, the removal of skins, the jar sterilization, filling, sticking with a knife to remove airbubbles, wiping, and screwing on the lids. Wrinkled fingers from the acid and hot water.

When I first met Mr. V, we had a scene: he cut into an anemic shadow of a tomato used to garnish his restaurant plate, and said “that’s a good tomato.” Alas, I admit I lost a bit of my reserve! I’ve since learned that a lot of tomatoes in Puerto Rico are of that wintery Styrofoam quality. Mr. V finds the tomatoes I’ve proffered him to be quite bracing. “Really?” he asks when I pull the most ugly and deformed from the bin? “Yes, this one will be great.”

The first tomato always becomes a sandwich: the best white bread toasted, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and thin slices of dripping redness.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.