When we lived on Cape Cod, we had friends with a huge tomato garden. I remember a cantankerous gate, and in the heaviest part of the summer, the vines, which didn’t seem too prone to organization, spiraled up and around each other, racing toward the sunlight in one big viral, vegetal tangle. I remember how when we walked among them, picking and tasting, the strays popped beneath my flipflops.
Toward the end of one summer, these friends decided they needed help eating tomatoes. One Tuesday, they had us over for a tomato-themed happy hour. The idea was to munch and chat and have a beer, but with the help of some good Parmesan cheese, a tub of sea salt, and a dipping bowl of great olive oil, we frittered the whole evening away, eating our body weight in ripe, warm-colored fruits, feeling the beer melt our day away.
From then on, when convenient, we celebrated Tomato Tuesdays. It was the sort of thing that became a tradition well before we had done it long enough for it to deserve “tradition” status, like when you vacation somewhere two years in a row, and it becomes The Mother’s Day Place, or The Memorial Day Place, or whatever, simply because you enjoyed yourself so much. But Tomato Tuesdays ended, for us, when we moved to Seattle.
Truthfully, I don’t miss very much about Cape Cod. I’m not particularly fond of the ocean, or of sandy beaches, or of grey hair or bad hats or bad drivers, but when we moved, I did miss Tomato Tuesdays, almost immediately. But just weeks after we arrived in Seattle, a guy from a couple houses down knocked on our door. He introduced himself—here, I call him The Tomato Neighbor—and foisted two manhandfuls of sunny jewels upon us. At the time, our belongings were caught in a painfully long moving truck fiasco, so these glorious, colorful tomatoes, which required nothing more than the knife and cutting board and table and chairs we’d borrowed from other neighbors, were just the thing. I remember eating them alongside burritos from the freezer section from Trader Joe’s, thinking that even though Tomato Tuesdays couldn’t reinvent themselves in Seattle, we’d most likely find something equally terrific here.
Summer after summer—this will be our fourth here—the Tomato Neighbor plants his tomato garden. In a space about as big as our living room, with a carefully crafted vine-rigging and watering system, he plants upwards of 20 varieties each year, more than 50 plants in all. Each May, as little fuzzy, weak-leaved starts appear at the farmers markets, he brings home infant Black Krims and Mortgage Lifters, Purple Cherokees and Green Zebras, little children to be fostered and spoiled throughout the summer. As they grow, we tell the histories of the ones we know, like the tomatoes are actually people—what, you hadn’t heard that a guy actually paid of his mortgage selling seeds for his new tomato variety?
What I’ve noticed, over the years, is that our relationship with The Tomato Neighbor ebbs and flows with the tomato season. All winter long, we hardly speak. (It’s not that much of a coincidence, really. We don’t have a lot in common.) But when the days get longer, and the sun starts peeking out a little more, we see each other. He’ll show me the start he’s about to put in the ground, or tell me which new variety he’s testing this year, and I’ll promise, like I did last week, to give him some of my leeks and show him how to clean them. In a way, when he plants his tomato garden, he plants a little community for our neighborhood. As the fruit comes forth, we see each other daily, the Tomato Neighbor and I, and Vicki, and Gail, and whoever else happens by—maybe Susan from across the street, or Kris, or whoever. There are lots of shouts through open windows, and slices to try, and people stop knocking on doors.
The other day, when The Tomato Neighbor popped in to tell me he’s got 44 plants in the ground already, I realized that as much as I love the food that comes out of his garden, it’s not the tomatoes I miss in the winter. It’s the community his tomatoes bring. It’s calling a different neighbor to show her the Greek salad I’ve done with his tomatoes, and explain to her why it would be perfect for her mother’s birthday party. It’s having friends from around the corner, and their two dogs, over to taste the tomatoes, with salt and olive oil, the same way we did on Cape Cod. It’s having a garden of my own, but also knowing that in a way—and I hope not a selfish way—the gardens on my street are all mine, in the same way that my garden belongs to all of them.
So when I went to plant a garden this spring, I started by asking myself a question: What do I want to get out of this square of land, besides food? Not How does my garden grow?, but Why does my garden grow? Okay, so actually, I cheated: I asked you on Facebook, too. You’re good. You said yours give you really dirty fingernails, and healthy dandelions, and an excuse to spend money, and—my favorite—a “forgiving place to remind me that mistakes are how we learn.”
But me? My garden grows because it gives me a sense of community. It feeds my second most immediate family, this little group of people on First Avenue, in a way that’s much more tangible than anything else I do. My garden’s problem—or my problem, really—is that I don’t feel like I have enough to give. I mean, is knocking on someone’s door with four blueberries really an act of kindness? I rarely have enough lettuce for a salad, and beets come out two at a time. I’d be kidding myself if I thought my little city space could produce enough food to feed us (or, ahem, if I thought my limited gardening skills could actually make that much food grow), much less have enough to really share, the way the Tomato Neighbor does. So this year, instead of planting a little of this and a little of that, I decided to plant mostly one thing: carrots. In September, I want to have enough to share with everyone.
I think carrots are the perfect garden vegetable: You can plant them early, when the digging itch strikes, but you can’t really put them in too late (in Seattle, anyway). In fact, you don’t even have to plant them, if you don’t want to—last year, I just flung the seeds into the patch and walked away, and everything turned out fine, except for the fact that my carrots came up in a sort of semicircular spray of green, like a bad eyeshadow job, instead of in neat little rows. In any case, the seeds morph into waving little green feathers almost immediately. You can thin the little sprouts, to make them grow bigger, but you don’t really have to. They grow below ground, instead of above, so my dog doesn’t eat them. They don’t go bad if you don’t pick them at just the right time, the way tomatoes do. And if, hypothetically, you’ve been known to forget all about them and leave them in the ground for, say, six months too long, they’re quick to forgive you.
I know. You garden people are balking, but you can keep your comments to yourself. I plant. They grow. I’m doing it right enough for me.
(Well, okay. They usually grow. I might have gotten a little bold and planted carrots in late February, but only a few came up. Mistakes are how we learn, right? So last weekend I planted again.)
Anyway. Last weekend, I announced to The Tomato Neighbor that I’d planted enough carrots for everyone, thinking I was doing my share. I’m proud of my carrots before they’ve shown even the smallest sign of success.
“Oh,” he said. “I got a whole bunch of carrot starts to put in, too. I meant to tell you that.”
So. I suspect we’ll have a few carrots around this fall. This little salad is my mental preparation.
Carrot and Hazelnut Salad (PDF)
I’m not normally the kind of girl who eats a bowl of carrot salad and calls it lunch. (I make fun of those girls.) Tangled together in a mixing bowl, though, this combination of freshly grated carrots (the pre-shredded kind really won’t do), spunky vinaigrette, and earthy, crunchy hazelnuts makes me think twice about adding a sandwich.
Use good-quality sea salt, vinegar, and oil for this recipe.
TIME: 25 minutes (including toasting nuts)
MAKES: 4 servings
1 cup hazelnuts
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup hazelnut oil
1 pound carrots, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh parsley
First, toast the hazelnuts: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roast the nuts on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until the skins begin to darken and peel away from the nuts themselves. Rub the nuts in a textured tea towel to remove the skins, roughly chop, and set aside.
Whisk the mustard, vinegar, and a little salt and pepper together in the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until the oil is fully incorporated. Add the carrots, hazelnuts, and herbs, along with additional salt and pepper, if needed, and toss to coat.