Tomatoes. All kinds of tomatoes. Big ones, little ones, red ones, pink ones, yellow ones. If it’s true that, “you are what you eat,” the Peights are by and large tomatoes. The Peights have a predilection for tomatoes— a predilection that some would say borders an obsession.
As I was growing up on the farm at home in rural Pennsylvania, there were always tomatoes in one form or another about the house. Since our cravings were not seasonal, tomatoes claimed a dominant place in our garden and on the shelves in our cool, damp cellar. We canned tomato soup, spicy tomato juice, and tomato sauce in prodigious quantities. Other tomatoes we cut into large chunks and canned. With all these resources, we were able to regularly incorporate tomatoes into our diet throughout the year. Whenever we had fresh tomatoes, we ate them on our toast for breakfast and on fresh, homemade bread for lunch. Tomato slices with a layer of creamy Hellman’s mayonnaise and diced hard-boiled egg on top was a favorite salad dish for dinner. For a snack at bedtime or after church on Wednesday nights, we ate canned tomato chunks poured over a piece of bread and drank tall glasses of iced tomato juice.
This universal passion for tomatoes in my family was actually not original with us. My dad’s family was perhaps even more obsessed with tomatoes than we were. Dad came from a family of thirteen boys and two girls. To help feed a family of this size, they raised over a hundred tomato plants each year. The first ripening tomatoes of the season never made it to maturity. With so many tomato-lovers about it was entirely too risky to let them on the plant until they were completely ripe—they had to be grabbed while the grabbing was good!
Grandmother canned four hundred quarts of tomato juice and five hundred quarts of tomato chunks in “family size” two-quart Mason jars. In the wintertime, my uncles’ school lunches consisted of canned tomato chunks over homemade bread topped with sweet onion and course pepper. To drink, there was tomato juice. The story goes that on one occasion they had the normal— tomato chunks, and tomato juice—and, for a special treat, fresh tomatoes. In the summertime it was not unusual to have a single-course dinner of tomato sandwiches. One enormous stainless steel bowl of tomato slices was set at each end of the kitchen table along with a few loaves of fresh white bread. The highlight of the meal was the fight over the juice in the bottoms of the bowls. Again, every man was on his own. The timid got none.
Dad made a wise choice when he married Mom because she was able to support Dad’s well-established tomato habit in a very special way. Her family raised a pink, non-acid tomato that was handed down from her grandmother. Seeds from the best tomatoes were preserved every year to be planted the following year. These heirloom tomatoes became know as “Mother’s” tomatoes. Today, the “Mother’s” tomato crop defines the success of the summer.
For me a tomato is more than just a vegetable that adds color to a tossed salad. Tomatoes add color to my identity as a Peight. Every year as I now nurture my own tomato plants with my children, I am flooded with happy memories of my childhood as a tomato Peight.
-guest post, essay written by my husband Gabriel
And a photo of one small Peight enjoying her heritage