Sam Cook column: Homegrown tomato harvest pushes limits

It’s time to harvest tomatoes.

If you have raised tomatoes in the North this summer, you know it has been a perfect season. Long, sunny days. Warm nights. Plenty of nourishing rains. A bumper crop.

Duluth is not known as the epicenter of the Tomato Belt. Our late spring frosts and Lake-Superior-cooled summers aren’t conducive for raising the big, juicy orbs that you see in the magazine spreads. In many years, the harvest is heavy on tiny green specimens that golfers could use for chipping practice in the backyard.

We tie the dog outside the garden fence and head for our plants. Five of them. They looked tidy and well-kept early on, climbing gracefully up their wire frameworks. Now they are a jungle of branches and tendrils that have grown waist-high and overlapped each other in dense and pungent profusion.

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The tangle of green vines resemble the tentacles of some squid-like creature from the depths. Enter this jungle at your own risk — and try not to squish a ripe tomato lurking in the understory.

We each start plucking the reddest and ripest specimens, lowering them gently into our buckets. This is what made all those evenings with the watering cans during summer worthwhile. So many tomatoes. Tomatoes hanging high. Tomatoes drooping low. Tomatoes lurking in the inner sanctuaries of the vines. Tomatoes already fallen to the ground, nibbled upon by the night creatures.

We toss the semi-rotten ones over the high fence and into the woods. The yellow dog marks the arc of their flight. “Later,” she’s thinking, “I’ll sneak out here and get those.”

We pick for only a few minutes in the warm September sun before our pails are heavy. To put one more tomato on top would risk an avalanche. We must stop. We can come back later for more.

Back at the house, we can’t wait. We wash a big red candidate, cut it into chunks, stand at the counter and sample what summer has bequeathed us. The flavor is moan-worthy. The juice trickles down our chins.

That night, it’s a foregone conclusion: BLTs for supper — bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. But wait, we have no “L.” Oh, well. We’ll use fresh spinach leaves instead of lettuce. We shuffle to the veranda porch. We sit. We eat. We moan in pleasure.

So much flavor. So much juice.

The next night’s supper? BLTs again. Why not? Bacon is not a food group that a person wants to rely on too heavily, but some desires must be indulged.

But wait — we still have no lettuce. And now we’re out of spinach, too. No matter: We’ll settle for B and Ts, just bacon and tomatoes and a swish of mayo. We deem this entirely satisfactory. By the end of the week, we might be down to simply tomatoes and toast.

And still, in the garden, the tomatoes keep coming. Every day or two, back we go with our buckets. We fill them again. We offer them to neighbors and folks from church. We freeze the surplus.

And pray for a hard frost.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.

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