Noe Valley Voice October 2000

Fried Tomatoes

By Betsy Bannerman

I woke up to a cool, crackling-clear San Francisco morning with that nose-prickling, cheek-chapping feeling which we called "snow in the air" back east. I legged quickly into my jeans, remembering it was Sunday, October, and time to deal with the "Back 40."

As I opened the back door, the sun hit me smack in the face, giving me a quick pinprick headache. I closed my eyes, but could still see the yellow-red, stained-glass glow behind my eyelids. It reminded me of the way, as a child at night in my cold bed in Maine, I used to press my fists into tight-shut eyes, bringing on the bright-on-black pinwheel fireworks whose starry sparkles could scare away my fear of the dark.

I could see from the porch that the tomato vines were brown and straggly, drooping sadly over their chicken-wire pens. One vine had gotten hold of the small pear tree for support, and seeing the bright red cherry tomatoes peeking through the pearless branches, I got another childhood flashback. This one took me to winter in Massachusetts, where on several Christmases we decorated a little pine tree behind the house with popcorn, berries, crusts of cranberry bread, apple quarters--presents for the birdies.

I decided to harvest the tomatoes one last time before digging the plot under until spring. Thumb and forefinger, fruit from stem, sometimes I pulled off a whole cluster, like a bunch of red grapes. I moved on to the larger Frisco Foggers, the ones that are so good for slicing, quartering, spaghetti-saucing, salad-building, BLT-ing. There were so many left, I went back indoors to get another paper bag, to pick some for my brother, who, I remembered, shared my passion for fried tomatoes....

D-a-a-a-d-d-e-e-e! Get up! It's Sunday! C'mon, c'mon, please? Oh, boy, he's comin'. Goody, goody gumdrops, yippee diddle dip, he's comin'. Let's go! We dance him downstairs to the kitchen, tripping around his legs the way kittens do when they want the mama cat to flop down in her tracks and open up the breakfast bar right now!

My dad starts pulling New England beefsteak tomatoes from the icebox, slicing them thickly on the old breadboard, dropping them with a fluffy plop onto the plate of salt-and-peppered flour. He then hooks each slice deftly with the two-tined fork and plops them down again into the flour, this time on the flip side. He gets butter sizzling in the black fry pan. And all the while he's humming and dum-de-dumming and singing those lots-of-verses story songs, so we can practice the harmonies he'd taught us the previous firefly summer nights ("in the evening by the moonlight").

Then, with the flour staining pink with tomato-y juices, he slings the dusty wet slices into the sizzle, juice spitting, seeds popping, skins crisping ("oh, the Ee-rye-ee is arisin'").

All four of us kids scrunch along the two benches to the geranium windowsill, and the sun makes a warm place on my hair ("you make me happy when skies are gray"). He finds the yellowed, waffle-pattern china plates in the cupboard, flips the tomatoes in the pan, now plumping and browning ("you can roll a silver dollar all over the floor"). We squirm and kick each other under the table ("all the live-long day").

He grabs a bottle of chilled milk in from the porch steps ("there's always something nice awaitin' on the ice"), pours off the top cream to be whipped later for gingerbread hats, and puts the rest of it, glub-glub, into our Howdy Doody jelly glasses. Let's rake leaves and jump in 'em today, okay, Dad? He serves us. Ooh, hey, that's mine, quit shovin', hooh, heeh, haah, ooh hot, look out, yum. Sit by me, Dad! But he's already back at the stove sliding in the next batch while we giggle, grin, and gobble 'em up....

THIS MEMORY came singing back to me in my grown-up kitchen, as I brought in three bagfuls of the Foggers, reached for the coffee-can canister of flour, and began happily puttering around, slicing and seasoning ("nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina"), flouring and flopping ("I'm looking over a four-leaf clover"), and finally frying and flipping ("oh, Mr. Moon, moon, great big silver moon").

With waffle-pattern plate in hand, I sat down on my back porch steps, looking over the back yards full of laundry, roses, and fence-climbing kitties ("eyes like a Cheshire cat, teeth like a pearl"). I bit into the warm, pink, pulpy treats, part tart, part sweet, part crisp, part chewy, full of heart skips. I put down my plate for the cats to lick. (Oh no, says Mom to our dad, as she comes into the kitchen slippered and sleepy, Honey, don't let the cats...oh, for heaven's sake!)

I picked up the shovel and was about to go back to the garden and start spading up and turning over when the phone rang.

"Oh, hi! As a matter of fact, I just picked a bag of tomatoes for you. Just fried up a batch, too. Boy, did that take me back!"

"Beautiful October day, isn't it? Don't you wish you could see the leaves turning?"

"Okay. See you in a bit. We can call home when you get here."

While I dug up the dead vines and ploughed under the old fruit, I said goodbye to summer, but not to the past--fall Sundays back home, snow in the air, leaves in the yard, fried tomatoes in the kitchen, and my daddy singing and cooking up memories for us ("and I'll l-o-v-e love you all the t-i-m-e time, rack 'em up, stack 'em up, any old time, match in the gas tank, boom boom!").

Betsy Bannerman is a single mother and writer whose articles have appeared in the local film magazine Release Print and the SPCA's Our Animals. She has lived in San Francisco for 30 years.