Kentucky’s Tomato Tradition

Kentucky’s Tomato Tradition

Last month, the Herald-Leader ran a Weekender feature that they called the Kentucky Bucket List. It was one of those feel-good summer articles spotlighting fifty things that all Kentuckians should experience in their lifetimes, with a focus on Summertime in the Commonwealth. The usual Chamber of Commerce suspects were lined up: we were advised to visit the Trappist monks and the Bourbon Trail, the Derby and the Slugger museum.

As lifelong Kentuckians with a passion for our home state, my beau and I read through the list, quickly noting which activities we have personally
experienced, which we have tried and found wildly overrated, and which we plan to studiously avoid until we kick the metaphorical bucket ourselves. We approached the entire exercise with more than a little irony, as “bucket lists” tend to conjure sad images of self-help books and general desperation. We’re nominally hip, childless thirty-something professionals — by definition, self-actualization isn’t our thing, and we sure don’t set “bucket lists.” Needless to say, we were a little harsh in our analysis of some items on the list.

As we were perusing the “to-eat” section of the list, my beau noted the suggestion “eat a tomato still warm from the vine.” His immediate reaction
was “that isn’t necessarily a Kentucky- specific thing,” noting that tomatoes are grown all over the South, and there aren’t specific varietals that carry local connotations (unlike, say, Frankfort’s own Bibb lettuce). I initially agreed—you don’t think of “Kentucky tomatoes” the way you think of “Georgia peaches”— but I later started thinking that, just perhaps, we’d shortchanged the Herald’s list a bit. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that garden-fresh tomatoes are the quintessential symbol of Kentucky summers. Not everyone in the Bluegrass State goes to Downs after Dark or the Brass Band festival, nor do we all spend countless hours anticipating the upcoming football and basketball season, but nearly every Kentuckian
is, in some way, affected by the summer harvest. We eat better and more cheaply when the local summer fruits and vegetables arrive, and, most especially, we love our ‘maters.

When I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, my grandmother schooled me on the intricacies of fruit and vegetable varietals. She taught me that white half-runners are the best green beans and that silver queen is the preferred corn. Most importantly, she taught me about tomatoes: yellow-and-red striped, “big purples,” and other misshapen, juicy offerings that bear no resemblance to the sad, anemic things one may find cloaked in grocery store cellophane. I noted that she reserved her favorites – the tangy-sweet yellow tomatoes— for special meals. I delighted in my grandpa’s fried green tomatoes – which he always dredged in flour, not cornmeal. I watched in awe as she prepped hundreds of standard- issue red tomatoes for canning. Now, I would later come to realize that my granny’s colorful varietals bore more than a passing resemblance to the chi-chi heirloom tomatoes prized by fancy restaurants and upscale farmers markets. But, decades before I read a single word written by Barbara Kingsolver
or Wendell Berry or Michael Pollan, before I heard the terms “locavore” or “organic” or “CSA,” before I ever considered food sourcing as a sociopolitical issue or a moral imperative, I learned that in-season, garden-fresh food just tastes better.

In recent years, I’ve found myself taking a “tomato vacation” of sorts. I always manage to schedule a trip to my Floyd County hometown to coincide
with the tomato harvest. I cook and eat as many tomatoes as I can, and I take home as many as good sense and space constraints will allow. During this year’s tomato marathon, I’ve already made a light, sweet tomato sauce for grilled pizzas. I’ve paired the juiciest, ripest tomatoes with my bumper crop of fresh, peppery basil in countless caprese salads and bruschetta appetizers. I’ve whipped up small batches of pico de gallo, larger batches of gazpacho, and plan to make and can a few dozen pints of salsa. As I continue my family’s traditions of cooking and canning garden-fresh tomatoes, I realize that I am preserving not only the signature fruits of a Kentucky summer, but a small part of my heritage. As I set myself the goals to learn my grandmother’s signature arts of canning and quilting, I realize that, just perhaps, I’ve actually compiled my very own “Kentucky Bucket List.” Maybe we’ll just call it something else.

Saturday August 6, LexTran’s Trolley will run the extended Blue Route between Chevy Chase and Farmers’ Market from 10 am to 1 pm. On August 13 and August 27, Shaker Village will offer Seed to Table dinners, served gardenside.