Thoughts on Eating My Own Tomatoes

In late June, my family moved from Manhattan to a house in Pennsylvania with a yard. At three-quarters of an acre, it’s big enough for some reasonable planting, and so my mother-in-law planted tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins with my kids. We later learned that the gigantic weed-ish looking plants growing in various spots around the yard are butternut squash, planted by the previous owner’s children, so we let them stay. The tomatoes are starting to ripen, so yesterday I had the experience of eating tomatoes (or mostly, feeding my toddler tomatoes) grown from my own garden.

In the vast quantity of ink spilled about this concept over the past few years, such experiences are supposed to be transformative. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle landed atop bestseller lists with its odes to vegetables grown on her plot of earth. Edible gardening is such a huge movement that it’s taken over the White House lawn. Ree Drummond’s blog (and books) The Pioneer Woman, spins this fantasy of moving to the country side and finding meaning in growing your own food and making luscious and photogenic salads out of such things. The narrative flow of such stories is that in our detached, modern world, we grow roots as we tend roots, and perhaps our picky eater children will be excited about vegetables grown with their own hands.

What did I think? The tomatoes tasted fine. Not necessarily better than the heirloom ones I’ve bought at Trader Joe’s. Not cheaper either, when you consider the opportunity cost of time. My toddler who loves tomatoes ate the tomatoes; my 4-year-old who’s more of a dinosaur-chicken-nuggets kind of boy declined to do so, despite watching the plants grow in his backyard. Gardening can be a pleasant diversion, and so can other things, like reading blogs or magazines.

So why all the overwrought food writing? America has a long tradition of back-to-the-earth narratives (like Walden Pond), and an equally long tradition of lamenting the alienation supposedly caused by the modern, specialized economy. We construct the image of the corporate zombie, in previous iterations called the Organization Man, commuting to work, manipulating numbers or data or moving papers around, then coming home to watch television while eating bland and mass-produced food. At least your own tomato can be a protest against all that, which I suspect is why we imbue it with such significance.

But the beautiful thing about the specialized economy is that it creates space for creative work as well as other things. The fact that many of us can make reasonable money sharing our observations of the world, including about our gardens — a skill that was probably not much valued at, say, the point in time when our grandparents left school in 8th grade to work on their farms out of necessity — deserves to be far more celebrated than a tomato. That’s what I keep in mind whenever people lament a lost age, or the old-fashioned way of doing things. It is good to feel far enough removed from such more grasping times that we can create such odes to growing our own food.


15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Eating My Own Tomatoes

  1. Eating my first tomato from my garden wasn’t transformative exactly, but definitely memorable and a symbol of a transformation that I was in the midst of making.

    One of my grandfathers left school in 8th grade to work the farm and the other grandparents made it no further than high school before also working farms and vegetable gardens and chicken-and-egg businesses. The youngest that any of my grandparents died was 79. My grandmother lived to two months shy of 100. My parents were suburban information professionals, like me. Dad died at age 63 and Mother at 68. When Michael Pollan, and others, say to eat more like your grandparents, that advice has particular resonance for me. I’m looking at the opportunity to live 10 to 30 years more. Now, there’s a good use of time!

    I have to pour creativity into the way I eat. When I don’t, I am too susceptible to marketing and to engineered foods that taste good, really good, but only if I’m eating mindlessly. That results in a weight that I can maintain with exercise but is 20 pounds into the obese range. At that weight, I have to take high blood pressure medication and I have an increased potential for the heart attack that killed my dad and the diabetes that killed my mother.

    The whole grow your own, shop the farmers market, eat like your grandparents cluster of behaviors is a metaphor. There are other metaphors that people use to help them attain and maintain a healthy weight — the Neanderthal diet, the Weight Watchers points culture. For those of us who can’t maintain a healthy weight in the modern food environment, a metaphor is a helpful structure for the creativity required to accomplish the task. The grow-your-own metaphor is one that is particularly appealing to a certain type of overly-educated, progressive individual, a member of what the English call the chattering classes. Since you and I both fall under that umbrella, we see that metaphor discussed more often than some of the others.

    I can either be overweight or I can throw some of my creative energy into the task of being at a healthy weight. If I have to throw creative energy into this, and it seems that the specialized economy doesn’t serve me well in this area, then it might as well be in ways that feed my soul as well as my body. For me, that includes growing tomatoes and appreciating every sun-warmed bite.

  2. Last year we grew grape tomatoes, this year lettuce. I loved it when my 3-yr old would sneak behind the garage and eat them before the rest of us could get them, but he eats lettuce/tomatoes from the store with just as much gusto.
    This year we planted carrots. Both boys love them any way they can get them. We don’t take much time with our vegetables. We put plants/seeds in the ground and let the automatic sprinklers do the watering. Then we pull them up when ready. It’s fun and we are all off in the summer, so it gives us something to do.
    I don’t like store bought tomatoes, but do eat garden fresh ones in slices. Maybe it’s b/c I’ve never bought them at Trader Joe’s, but the opportunity cost of that is a 40 minute round-trip drive–not worth it to me.

    1. Yes, a 40-minute drive would definitely reduce my interest in buying such things! Many bigger grocery stores carry at least some varieties of heirloom tomatoes in season, and they’re quite eatable on their own, maybe with a little olive oil and sea salt.

  3. I like this post.

    My picky eating 4 year old didn’t eat the veggies we grew together, either. I didn’t really expect her to do so- my mom had tried the same thing, and it didn’t work on me, either. (I ate the veggies we grew this year, though, so perhaps if you take a long enough view, my Mom’s experiment worked.)

    I viewed the garden as a chance to talk a little science with my daughter and a good way to spend some time outside while my kids played in the yard. As that- it was successful. I’ll do it again.

    1. @Cloud- science lessons are always fun. We used the thunderstorm yesterday to talk about why it was OK to be in a car with lightning around, but not OK to be in a pool.

  4. I tried a garden last year…we live at an altitude of over 7000 feet, so our growing season is super short. At 80 degrees during the day, and 40 degrees at night, spinach bolts and bell peppers won’t grow. It snows in June, for crying out loud. And again in September. I’ll try again some day when we move…

    So anyway, I’m happy to find out that eating your own fresh produce out of your garden isn’t always the amazing experience people make it out to be. And I’m glad that isn’t the reason why my sons like PopTarts so much.

    I like the point you’ve made about how we can fantasize about getting back to the earth specifically because we don’t actually have to do it. I feel like a bad little liberal girl because I don’t know how to knit or make my own soap or raise chickens on my “urban farm”, but seriously, who wants to actually go back to times when everybody had to do that for themselves? I’m thrilled that others know how to do that, so I can pay them to make me a big fluffy sweater to wear while I sit around, drink my coffee (that I did not roast myself) and do some math research. I. love. progress.

    1. @Cara – it’s the same concept I’ve written about with housework. Because we no longer have to do it to the same standard, parts can become a leisure time activity, with Caldrea soaps turning the whole thing into aromatherapy, or Real Simple inviting its high-end readers to fantasize about cleaning the grout with fresh lemon. If you don’t have to farm, if your children don’t have to leave school to till the earth, then you can enjoy the fun parts of it. But let’s be clear — as we dabble in the fun parts of these things, it’s important to be grateful that we no longer have to wash 8 children’s clothes by hand on a washboard, and we won’t starve if the gardening thing doesn’t pan out.

  5. I gave up my garden two years ago. After (too many) years, I realized I could get great produce at the farmer’s market at a much smaller investment of my time.

    I loved gardening, but I could not garden on a schedule. You need to pick beans before they turn into seeds. You need to weed before they choke out your plants. You can’t ignore a garden for two weeks while you run to T-ball games or have a huge project due at work.

    My relaxing garden became just one more thing demanding my time and attention. It stressed me out!

    I really didn’t want to give it up. I kept thinking, next year I’ll have more time. Next year, it’ll be easier — when the kids aren’t babies, when I don’t have that work project due, when…

    I think I hung onto the idea of gardening because my mom had a huge vegetable garden. She didn’t work outside the home, though. She didn’t travel. She spent huge amounts of time on the garden that I am spending on other things.

    I now have a couple pots of tomatoes and go to the farm stand or farmer’s market for other produce. I can buy as much (or as little) as I need, when I can use it.

    1. @MJB: I think this gets at the heart of the matter. Even if, for political/health/environmental reasons, you believe in eating organic and/or locally grown food, you can get such things without having to grow them yourself. Get to know your local economy and local growers, and use the miracle of economic specialization to your advantage.

      1. The challenge for me with economic specialization is how the (usually migrant) agricultural workers are treated. I feel like I’m exploiting people. Does anyone else struggle with this?

        1. Yep. Less of an issue with Farmers Markets, of course. But a big issue for larger operations, both organic and conventional. I’m afraid to read Tomatoland for fear of more guilt over the canned tomatoes I use in the winter. OTOH, if we look too closely at any consumer items, from T-shirts to bananas, we’re going to find problems. Other than putting my head in the sand and throwing some of my dollars to local producers and small producers on places like Etsy, I’m not sure what else to do.

          1. @Joy – Yes, it is hard to be pure with any consumer item. That’s the rationale for getting to know your local economy, and with chains, trying to shop in places that you know treat at least some employees well (I read in Fortune that Trader Joe’s full time store employees earn $40-60k per year! I have no idea about the rest of the supply chain, but that’s probably a good sign, and Costco also does well by its hourly employees). As for the migrant workers, it’s unclear that they’d be better off if people didn’t buy the food they earn money picking. I think the only hope of addressing that mess is writing one’s congress people about passing a sane and humane immigration policy.

  6. Good points. I didn’t know that about Trader Joe’s employees and I have wondered if boycotts and the like harm the workers at the bottom the most.
    I keep having to relearn this, but gratitude is always a better place for me to operate from than guilt. There are people who work on these issues and I am so grateful to them, which makes me think there are probably ways to support their cause.

  7. I do think the stuff from the backyard tastes amazingly better.. I have been shocked by how much better.
    But I am not 100% sure it is cheaper to have your own garden… for one, the cost of water to water the garden is expensive… we actually got calls from the water company this summer about our use of water and I do think it might have been in part b/c of the garden maintenance.

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