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March 19, 1995

Spring yesterday, and today I'm already working on summer, starting a few more seedlings of the patio cherry tomato to follow the ones now developing in the outside cellarway. Also a few seeds of the Ecuadorian Relleno pepper and Brandywine tomato that arrived yesterday in the mail. Nothing special about starting them in the house. I just wet down some seed starting mix, put it in plastic six-packs, seed it up, then put the six-packs in a covered plastic tray to keep things moist, and put the tray on a radiator to keep it warm. And germination usually takes place in a week or so.

But there was something about the picture of that Brandywine tomato on the seed packet that caught my eye, just as I'd been captivated by that picture when I first saw it in the catalogue several weeks ago. I guess it was the pinkish coloring of the skin and the faint green stripes on the shoulders that surprised me--so different from the uniformly red sheen of most tomatoes that one sees in the gardening catalogues. Not a glossily assertive modern-day tomato, jumping off the page, but an heirloom tomato that almost seemed to be fading out a bit, like the memory of my first fresh-picked garden tomato.

It was a hot summer that August in Cleveland. 1940 or 41. I and my older brother Marshall were out for a Sunday afternoon in the country at the farm of my cousin Art, a distant cousin, old enough to be one of my grandparents. The farm itself was more like a country estate, a large white clapboard showplace with a wide wraparound porch. A place that Art and his family used as much for business and entertaining as for a weekend retreat from their two-story apartment in Shaker Heights. I can't remember who all was there that Sunday. But I can remember Art, the gruff multimillionaire, telling the resident caretaker to "get each of them a salt shaker and take them out to the tomato plants." And I can remember the caretaker telling me just to pull one of the tomatoes off the plant, take a little bite, shake a little salt on the exposed part of the tomato, take another bite, and so on. The warmth and juiciness and piquancy of those first few bites have been in my mind's mouth ever since. And ever since I started gning, I've been trying to grow a tomato that would taste like that one when I pick it off the vine on a hot day in August with a salt shaker in my hand.

So, when I looked at that haunting picture of the Brandywine on this overcast, chilly morning, I thought it might be the way back to those fifty-year old tomatoes of my childhood, especially because the Brandywine was discovered by a seed-saving New Englander who lived during the first half of this century. You can't go home again, I know, but an heirloom tomato may be able to get you a bit closer than a hybrid. I'll know better come August.

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