Tomato Starts and Traditions

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Tomatoes and her no-nonsense grandmother inspire Denise Sakaki to venture into gardening, determined not to kill the reason for getting her hands dirty.

STORY BY DENISE SAKAKI

I possess a solid resume of struggling houseplants and moldering windowsill herb pots − I could give a sideways glance to a dandelion and kill it. And here I live, in the bountiful Pacific Northwest, where anyone with a scrap of soil has a Pinterest-perfect garden.

When we got our first house with a big backyard, it wasn’t peer pressure or aspirational living that got me curious about gardening. Instead, it was the voice of my dearly departed grandmother with her no-nonsense attitude: “You don’t know until you try, so get out there and get your hands dirty.”

My grandmother was a sprightly one. She was up before sunrise every day, puttering over household chores, eventually tending to the garden with her tattered, wide-brimmed hat in anticipation of the afternoon sun.

My grandfather built the house my mother and siblings were raised in, along an unpaved dirt road, in the rural town of Makawao on the island of Maui. Higher in elevation and rich in iron from the volcanic soil, the earth is a deep burnt umber, made vibrant against the verdant green of the plants that spring so easily from it. This is where I learned to appreciate where food comes from.

Grandpa and Grandma’s land was a self-sufficient garden, feeding a family of six and a generation of grandchildren. When we visited, my job was to pick cherry tomatoes for the dinner salad. Growing up in the suburbia of manicured lawns and grocery stores of shrink-wrapped everything, tomatoes ripening on vines outside the front door seemed like absolute magic.

The sun’s warmth coaxed out the grassy, sweet essence of the tomato fruit. Fresh, delicate, and fragrant, it teased the senses, tantalizing the flavor of each little jewel. Grandma advised me to smell the tomatoes, and to pick ones that had a distinct sweetness, as those would be the best. She told me to not just pick the tomatoes on the outer part of the plant, that the ones deeper inside the tangle of vines were often the most ripe and sweet, having been insulated by the leaves and kept extra warm from the evening chill of the mountains.

Pushing my way into the heart of the plant, past overgrown vines, I found clusters of intense red tomatoes, their sweet aroma still discernable against the heady, bitter scent of the coarse green foliage. Elbowing my way around, I broke small stems, releasing the plant’s distinct, almost-chemical aroma; it would still be on my skin and clothing during mealtime, mingling with the flavor of whatever we ate.

Time and nostalgia help a palate develop an appreciation of things. These days, I instinctively smell all produce before selecting it. And, thanks to the work ethic my grandmother instilled in me in her Maui garden, I’ve found success in my garden and broken my Grim Reaper streak of killing all plant life.

In our garden, I grow peas, squash, bitter greens, and, of course, tomatoes. In summer, I pick cherry tomatoes of all different colors, the sun’s heat allowing that familiar sweetness to emerge. I often eat them before they ever reach our kitchen. Like gumdrops of vegetal sweetness and a balanced trace of bitterness, I understand why Grandma spent so much time tending to her garden, gratified and nourished with what she grew.

It’s too early in the season to wrestle a snarl of tomato vines, but the little green starts in my kitchen are promising. Even in their tiny form, barely a hint at what they will become, the soft leaves and release that bitter fragrance I’m so enamored of. It immediately takes me back to a place that now only exists in memory, and a voice made real, reminding me to get out there and get my hands in the dirt.

Denise Sakaki is a writer, photographer and graphic designer with an appetite for new experiences. She is the creator behind the food/travel/cooking blog, Wasabi Prime and her work has been noted in New York Magazine’s Grub Street, The Kitchn, and Food News Journal and was featured in Foodista’s Best of Food Blogs Cookbook.

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