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Column: Now, forget winter, direct thoughts to new tomato crop

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Feb. 25, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — Wicked Winter has his suitcase packed, but I know he still is full of mischief. In March 1952, I sat on a train at Butterfield for 24 hours. There was a blizzard and the train was stuck. Nevertheless (I like that word). Nevertheless. We have come once again to the doorstep of March. When we have December and January and February all behind us, we have come a long way toward The End. It was about this time last year that I came into possession of a wonderful gift that, finally, is a frustration.

I was at Wal-Mart. There was stirring in the garden department, and I looked to see what was going on. A girl with a smile that could put her in a toothpaste ad handed me a Styrofoam cup with a tomato plant.

“What is this?” I said. (Actually, I knew what it was.)

“Today is the grand opening for the garden department,” she said. “Every visitor gets a tomato plant.”

I took my tomato home and put it on a kitchen windowsill. It thrived. I could have put it in the ground in April, but I didn’t want to take chances. I planted it in May at the back of the garage — south side.

I watered it regularly. I never did add fertilizer. It grew to be the best tomato I ever had.

That single vine produced, oh, maybe a bushel of tomatoes. Each was large and round and red. You might have thought I had a way of cloning them.

The thing is, I didn’t know what they were. They weren’t Beefsteaks; I know those. They weren’t Better Boy. I grew some of those also. I know Early Girl and Big Boy. My plant was something different.

I went to Wal-Mart and inquired. You could guess — no one knew the name of the free tomatoes from March. This is the frustration. I would plant again what I planted before — but I don’t know what I planted.

I am reading a seed catalog (on the Internet, now). That got me started on tomatoes. The 200th anniversary:

Late summer 1806, Thomas Jefferson served tomatoes in the White House for the first time. Guests didn’t know what they were eating and Tom wasn’t saying much — he knew tomatoes were great, but nearly everyone believed tomatoes were poison.

Thomas Jefferson had a garden at Monticello where he personally (with help) grew 250 varieties of vegetables. Twenty-seven varieties of beans and Brown Dutch lettuce. Presidents used to do things like that. I visited George Washington’s garden site at Mount Vernon. You still may buy seeds descended annually from flowers Washington planted the last year he lived.

Anyway, Jefferson grew tomatoes. Spanish tomatoes. Genovese tomatoes. Purple Calabash tomatoes that had nearly a purple skin. By 1824, “everybody” was eating tomatoes.

Herald Marske — retired elementary principal who puts a premium on correct spelling — Herald Marske: People were eating tomatoes before they knew how to spell them. Jefferson wrote “tomatas.” By 1824, Mary Randolph included tomato recipes in “The Virginia Housewife.” She wrote “tomatos.” When George Washington Carver passed along 115 tomato recipes in 1918, he had the word down to “tomatoes.”

(You know what I am doing here? I am trying to think, “Tomatoes. No more winter.” )

This year we don’t have Dorthy Rickers to pass along recipes. That thought moved me to look closely at that 1824 cookbook. Mrs. Randolph recommended, “Eggs and Tomatos.” (Well — don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.) Her 1824 recipe:

“Peel skins from dozen large tomatos, put four ounces of butter in a frying pan, add salt, pepper, and a little chopped onion; fry a few minutes, add tomatos, and chop while frying; when nearly done, break in six eggs, stir quickly, and serve.”

George Washington Carver also recommends eggs and tomatoes. I prefer his suggestion for tomatoes and corn:

“Scoop out centers of smooth, well-ripened tomatoes; cut tender corn from cob, put through fine meat grinder; season with pepper, salt, and a little sugar. Fill cavities of tomatoes with corn and pour teaspoon of melted butter on top of each tomato; bake in hot oven until soft, 15-20 minutes.”

What do you think? You still thinking winter?