The Existential Tomato

If you’ve never enjoyed the sensation of going out to the garden, picking a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and eating it right there on the spot atop of God’s good earth with the tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm sunshine on your face, then you’ve never had a tomato at it’s best. If you have, then you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for then you have achieved an existential union with tomato-ness.

(Or maybe that’s an essential union; I forget the distinction. I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took it in the first place, which means I might have passed the course after all.)

Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the soil are a hallmark of great Southern dinners; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate, usually with a fragrant cantaloupe and maybe a good, dewy cucumber (all slightly chilled with a mint garnish) is a signature addition to any summer meal.

I consider a ripe tomato the crowning glory of Southern vegetables, but everybody has their own favorite; some advocate summer squash, others favor fresh beans and peas, and still others extol sweet corn. Some eccentric souls even champion okra or eggplant. But even back in the Bad Old Days when most of the country ate out of a can or from the frozen food section, people in the South knew to get their vegetables from gardens, and if they didn’t have a friend or relative they could help out by weeding and hoeing for some of the returns, they could get fine vegetables from the truck gardens and produce stands along the byways.

So when you’re out on the road this summer and you see little produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by and spending a little time and a little money getting to know the foods of the South and the people who make them.

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