A few weeks ago, I stopped at a farmer’s market. “Here, try this for free. It’s a little different,” a vendor said. He handed me a small, green, heirloom tomato.
When I wrote Incomplete Passes, I saw it as a coming-of-age story and a book about football fans, which it is. But I always felt there was another layer—the tale of a little Jewish family that came to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and tried to make a place for itself.
I don’t know much about my parents’ life before I came along. They were married a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor. My dad thought he’d go to war, but he was deferred because he’d had rheumatic fever as a child. So my folks bounced around the Midwest and South for a few years, working in retail stores, and landed in Green Bay at the end of 1947, just after my birth. Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be about tomatoes?
What amazes me is that my father was a New York Jew, an apartment dweller from birth, and yet he made a complete transition to Midwestern living. Around 1950 he bought a tiny house with a large, flat yard and proceeded to put in a garden. Ah, here come the tomatoes. My grandparents never owned a house, and they must have wondered why he wanted one. (They questioned my decision to buy one twenty-five years later.) For him, I think the garden was a big part of it.
He planted tomatoes and cucumbers and a strange item called ground cherries, sweet little fruits enclosed in a papery husk. My dad got advice and cuttings from two elderly sisters who lived next door. They had turned their back yard into a a miniature farm, complete with chicken coop. Our household awakened each morning for years to the crow of their rooster. He soon disabused us of any notion that he would cock-a-doodle only once a day, to herald the dawn.
The neighbor ladies must have given Dad culture shock. My grandmother was of the same generation, but an entirely different species. Grandma traveled in Europe, attended the opera, purchased designer apparel—and actually said, “to-MAH-toe.” Agnes and Marie were wide-hipped, frizzy-haired farm women who wore housedresses, had an old-country lilt in their voices, and spent their days working their little field.
Whether from the sisters or from cookbooks, Dad and Mom learned how to can. I’ve always been afraid to preserve foods, fearful I’d give someone botulism, but they really got into it. Every fall we had pickled green tomatoes and cucumber dills and eventually plum jam. Yeah, Dad planted plum trees, too. During football season I’d eat that jam on my breakfast toast and proclaim that the Packers would make jam of Milt Plum, the estimable quarterback of the Cleveland Browns and later the Detroit Lions. They generally did.
After my mother died in 1979, my grandfather somehow got the idea that my dad might move back to New York to be near his parents. Dad refused, and their relationship was forever strained after that. I don’t know what my grandfather was thinking. Dad was a Midwesterner by then, a man of the land.
As for the green tomato from the farmer’s market, I didn’t care for it much. It had a strange, spicy flavor. It didn’t taste like a “real” tomato to me. But wow, it sure brought back memories!