My gateway to a return to normalcy? Homegrown tomatoes.
by Michael J. Solender
My barometer for post-Covid normalcy?
Tomatoes. Plump, crimson orbs grown steps from my back door, my post-Covid tomatoes inform me things are becoming right with the world.
They’re on their way, these beauties. Days from being picked while still warm from the sun, sliced thick, resting between slices of sourdough slathered with mayonnaise and finished with fresh-ground pepper, my first homegrown tomatoes of the season are harbingers of salad days ahead.
Like most gardeners, I’m an optimist. Promise lies in the loamy soil-filled raised beds situated outside my SouthPark home. It’s accompanied by the hope of fruit-bearing plants to be enjoyed come July — several months after receiving my second Covid jab and coinciding with President Biden’s goal of 70% of Americans having at least one vaccine by Independence Day. As a “We’re back to normal” indicator, Joe’s goal means less to me than a garden-side caprese salad complete with my very own Early Girls and fresh basil, picked minutes before serving.
In mid-March of 2019, I’d returned to the U.S. on one of the last flights from Shannon, Ireland, hours before then-President Trump instituted the European travel ban. When I landed at an eerily deserted JFK, relief at being home quickly gave way to fears of the unknown impact the coronavirus would have on us all.
There were no homegrown tomatoes for my family last year. No fresh tomato risotto, BLTs on whole wheat or tomato pie. I couldn’t motivate myself to get into the garden. It was June before I came to realize that I hadn’t planted my beds, weeks before I usually would begin my first harvest. It saddened me, my tomato-free season. My relationship with my garden, I knew, was merely a proxy for so many other relationships coldly placed on hold over the next 15 months.
Typically, my yield of tiny love-apples are vehicles for spontaneous conversations with my neighbors, opportunities to trade my summer bounty for stories about grandkids, upcoming vacations or the new family moving in down the block. My homegrowns are always warmly received as gifts at backyard BBQs, supplanting bottles of rosé, likely still stashed behind the pickles in my golf buddy’s fridge.
Over the last year of Blursdays, neighborly interactions were confined to car-side waves or long-distance chats across the fence. Golf dates and BBQs were waylaid for better times ahead. There was nary an inquiry regarding my tomato harvest. Instead, I spent months doomscrolling and dashboard studying.
Backyard tomatoes had become a constant in my life’s annual cycle: Planted in the spring, harvested and enjoyed throughout the summer and early fall, longed for in the winter. Their nourishment and sustenance fueled my psyche as much as my body.
And though we’re not completely out of the woods, we’re making strides against this virus. This summer, my tomatoes are back in the dirt, the bees have returned, and my neighbors are anticipating the first arrivals as much as I am. This year’s crop will be sweeter than ever. SP