I knew they were at home.
Cars were in the driveway. Curtains twitched at the windows as if someone had peeked out. I could hear the television droning inside. But no one answered my knock.
There was only one thing to do. I carefully left a bulging plastic bag on the porch, its weight against the screen door. They’d find it, I was certain. And know who had brought the gift of tomatoes: 20 lbs. of assorted red and yellow meat summer fruits from my garden.
This has been a particularly prolific season for tomatoes in Appalachia. Lots of rain, extended days of heat and humidity, and a spring cold snap that beat back the bugs made for near-perfect growing conditions.
My garden’s centerpiece consists of 10 tomato vines that have grown six feet tall and three feet wide like a hedge. I prepared the raised beds last fall and winter with leafy compost material; added many bags of manure and potting soil; and fertilized regularly after the plants took root and started setting fruit. Mortgage Lifters, German yellows, Better Boys, and Cherokee purples thrived in the fecund soil, bright sunshine, and high humidity.
In fact, I have already canned gallons of tomatoes, salsa and spaghetti sauce. My pantry shelves overflow with summer’s bounty. For the past two weeks, daily pickings of the patch have yielded hundreds of pounds of produce for neighbors, friends, business associates, folks at the vet’s office, cashiers at the bank, and the odd stranger.
It has reached the point, I am sad to say, that when neighbors see me staggering under the burden of stretched, pendulous bags of tomatoes, they won’t answer the door. If the houses were closer together on our road, I could probably hear phones ringing: the crime-watch communications network warning to beware of a redneck bearing garden gifts.
I have become the pariah of produce, avoided like poison ivy in the playground or a mean dog off its chain. People won’t answer their phones when I call or reply to my texts and emails. They hunker down when we pass in our cars. Once, my neighbor’s huge Dodge diesel dually-pickup truck looked like his border collie was driving… he had slipped down so low in the driver’s seat.
So now I leave the bags on doorsteps, seats of unlocked vehicles, hung on tractors, lawnmowers and mailboxes, in church pews, on patios, decks, and inside boats, kayaks and canoes. Anywhere they are likely to see the tomatoes.
I guessed a particular neighbor finally would say something when he found ripe tomatoes floating in his saltwater swimming pool. I snapped a photo with my phone: red, yellow and green globes bobbing merrily in the current of the recirculating pump. Very colorful and summery, I thought.
But nothing – nada – resulted from him finding a peck of tomatoes in his pool.
I begin to understand why shopping mall Santa Claus impersonators feel unappreciated. My gift sacks bear the brands of Walmart, Kroger, and Dollar General, but inside is juicy goodness, lovingly cultivated and harvested by a sweating, 270-lb. baldheaded elf -- white beard and all. But I am treated like a terrorist in a crowded marketplace. No doors of hospitality open to me. My tomatoes and I are shunned.
“Take ‘em to the farmers’ market,” someone suggested.
I did, but arrayed along the rows of tables were other produce growers who couldn’t get rid of their tomatoes even for pennies on the pound. The sour smell of rotten tomatoes wafted from the trash containers.
“Can’t give ‘em away this time of year,” said a lady whose false teeth clicked in discouragement. “Best garden I’ve had in years, but so was everyone else’s. I wind up throwing these beauties away at the end of the day.”
Another grower commiserated the fact that local food banks had posted signs that they’d accept green beans, watermelons and cantaloupes, but no more tomatoes. “They got tomatoes out the wazoo,” he said.
So now I am experimenting with new ways to use surplus fresh tomatoes. Tomato jam looks promising. My Italian sister-in-law told me how to freeze tomatoes. I hauled out my meat dehydrator and have the trays covered in slices for dried tomatoes. Online, I even found a recipe for homemade tomato wine.
But the vines continue to flower and produce little green tomatoes that ripen and need to be consumed, preserved or discarded. I really hate to waste something that, six months from now in the middle of winter, won’t be available except as hydroponically grown, grainy and dull-tasting things in grocery produce sections.
The real Santa won’t be coming down the chimney with a sack of summer delight this Christmas. Thus, I will persist in trying to give my excess juicy harvest to those who hide behind locked doors while they collectively pray for frost.