Big Boy. Early Girl. Velvet Red. Snowberry. Red Star.
These are just a few of the distinctive names culled from the tomato family and each summer I am usually blessed enough to have a few of these tasty and wonderfully-named fruits grace my garden.
I have always harbored a special fondness for tomatoes and, especially, tomato plants. I imagine it began with the unique scent the plants possess and I have traced my affinity for it back roughly 40 years ago when I would spend a couple of weeks each summer at my Maguire grandparents’ home in Thomaston, Georgia. There, each summer, my granddaddy (a gentleman farmer before the term became trendy) would labor like the devil to get any growth from that stubborn clay soil. As my grandmother reminisced on red clay, “We would dig a hole, fill it up with water, and then come back three days later and the water was still there.”
Regardless of the stubborn soil or the heat, my granddaddy always coaxed several tomato plants from his garden. Spending time outdoors with him in and around his vegetable garden planted in my fertile mind a love for the sensory delights of tomatoes and their vines.
Through the years, my affinity for the homegrown red delights has only increased.
Around ten years ago, my wife and I moved next door to the late and great Henry and Iris Atkins of Smyrna. The Atkins not only taught me much about life and faith, but also awakened a dormant gardener in me by re-introducing me to the sublimity of a homegrown tomato.
I soon began growing my own and was addicted. If nothing else, I found a sublime peace in nostalgia by rubbing my fingers along the stems of the plants and then inhaling deeply, transporting my soul back to being a toddler at my granddaddy’s feet as he picked and plucked and hoed his tomatoes.
During the last few years, my interest in the fruit (a term I still can’t honestly say without thinking how is it not a vegetable) has expounded into the wonderful world of tomato varieties and, subsequently, their names. The Big Boys. The Early Girls. The Velvet Reds and literally the thousands of other names I don’t have the space to mention.
I did a small amount of research for this column on the etymology of tomatoes and dug up some interesting facts.
>>>The tomato’s Latin name is lycopersicum which means “wolf peach.” Yes, wolf peach – and is derived from German werewolf myths. These legends said the deadly nightshade plant was used by witches and sorcerers in potions to transform themselves into werewolves, so the tomato’s similar, but much larger, fruit was called the “wolf peach” when it arrived in Europe from South America. How’s that for interesting? I am glad we stuck with the native moniker ‘Tomato’ instead of ‘Wolf Peach.’
>>>The aforementioned native moniker is ‘Tomatillo’ and hails from South America. The tomato was introduced to Western civilization from that part of the world where we translated the name to its current form.
>>>All in all, there are over 7,500 tomato varieties that range from your basic beefsteak to your yellow maters, Romas and the endless variety of heirlooms and hybrids.
These days, we take the tomato for granted. It’s in everything: Pizza, ketchup, Italian food, sauces, Bloody Mary’s and hundreds of more foods. Our society also developed the hot-house tomato phenomena, which, though the taste is a pale comparison to the real deal, still finds its way to tables across America on a daily basis.
For me, I don’t eat a lot of ketchup and order my food in restaurants without tomatoes. I will only eat them in the summer and if they are truly homegrown.
They not only taste better straight from the garden, but they’re juicier and have more character in their shapes and sizes.
But, I suspect another part of it is that it takes me back to spending summers at my grandparents’ home, piddling in the garden, the thick scent of tomato plants hanging in the humid air and a sense of wonder with the world. Somewhere as I dabble in my own plot, I imagine I try to catch a bit of that feeling. A lost stab at innocence and maybe even imagine the spirit of my granddaddy smiling on me.
This column previously appeared in Cobb Life and is available in Mark Wallace Maguire’s book, ‘Letters from Red Clay Country.’