During my time in New York City as a magazine editor, I found ways to keep myself rooted in the natural world. I fished on weekends in Long Island Sound (and even occasionally before work in the Hudson River), spread birdseed on my windowsill so the grackles would fill my room with bird chatter in the morning and drown out the ever-present sirens and the wailing of street preachers, and even gardened. Well, gardened might be a stretch. But each summer, in a show of even more optimism than required of your average gardener, I’d plant a few veggies in pots on my tenth-floor fire escape.
It wasn’t an easy go for the plants. Surrounding apartment buildings often blotted out the sun. Every now and then someone in one of the two floors above me would empty out a mop bucket, raining soapy water down on my crop. The only plant that actually thrived—make that survived—was the jalapeño. These days I always keep a jalapeño plant or two in my garden box here in Charleston, South Carolina, as an
homage to the plant that granted me a harvest in the Big Apple. But my heart lies with my tomato plants, especially the heirlooms. This year I went deep on the classics: the Cherokee Purple (so named for its Cherokee heritage and gorgeous color) and the Mortgage Lifter (which originated in West Virginia in the 1930s and grows such big fruit that selling them helped pay off the house of the man who developed them). There’s also a more modern variety, the Celebrity tomato, whose name is a bit of a turnoff for me. But so far it has lived up to its billing—producing large, crack-free, firm fruit ideal for slicing. A classic red cherry rounds out the crop because I love nothing more than eating one or two warm from the sun while I’m working in the garden.
I’ve also gone deep on tomato YouTube. (So many experts! So many opinions!) One lady likes to crack an egg and bury it under her seedlings; the calcium in the eggshell might be beneficial. One fellow takes his electric toothbrush and vibrates each flower stem to ensure (100 percent!) pollination. Probably works but so does a good old-fashioned shake of the flowering branch. If you ask me, they’re all vying for clicks, not fruit.
What I love about gardening is that it’s about as far from a spectator sport as one can get. The showmanship comes when you haul your harvest indoors. I follow my friend Jason Stanhope’s lead. When not in his garden, Stanhope is the acclaimed executive chef at FIG in Charleston, where the tomato tarte tatin is legendary. However, here’s his tomato game plan at home: “When they reach that window of perfection, we like soft white bread, lots of mayonnaise, sea salt, black pepper, and a brush of sherry vinegar,” he says. “The bread is only there to keep your fingers clean.”
For me, the next best thing is sliding a trio of hefty tomatoes into a paper bag and dropping them off on a neighbor’s doorstep. If anything says Southern summer more than that, I haven’t found it.