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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Tomatoes are not created equal

by Richard Mason | August 7, 2022 at 1:47 a.m.

There are tomatoes, and there are tomatoes.

A couple of weeks back, we had our first dinner of cornbread, buttermilk, and sliced tomatoes. A couple of weeks before that, after searching a couple of farmers markets, I carelessly bought two pounds of tomatoes. I guess I was desperate, because I had my doubts, and when we sliced the first one, Vertis and I shook our heads, and Ronda and her family dined on the rest of them.

Ronda is a raccoon, and her family of three teenage 'coons live under our back deck, along with a possum we call Peter.

Regarding our early summer dinner of cornbread, buttermilk, and sliced tomatoes, you need to know Vertis' cornbread does not contain a grain of sugar. The late Richard Allin, a former Arkansas Gazette columnist who wrote Our Town, said (only partly in jest) that putting sugar in cornbread was one of the causes of the Civil War. Maybe that's a little strong, but if you put sugar in your cornbread, you're making a cake, not cornbread.

But on to the tomatoes.

I spent my preteen and teen years on a 20-acre farm about a mile from Norphlet, and we raised everything you could imagine, including tomatoes.

Fast forward to 2022. There have been plenty of tomatoes at markets earlier this summer, but not the especially tasty ones that come from Arkansas farms. Those tomatoes may not look as good, but they have the homegrown taste.

Let me describe the ones Ronda's family were given. First, looks will deceive you. Those tomatoes were uniformly large, bright red, and perfectly shaped. However, if you picked one up and gave it a light squeeze, it had a cardboard feel. Then, if you looked under the counter where they're displayed, there was a box with professionally painted "Tomatoes" on the side.

Those tomatoes may be just as nutritious, but they aren't even in the ballpark when it comes to taste. So after that misfire, I began to skip cardboard tomatoes and was the lookout for the true Arkansas small, scrawny ones that make our summers a little more bearable. That's when a good friend from Moro Bay (in Bradley County, the state's tomato capital) brought us a box of Arkansas tomatoes.

Tomatoes aren't all I watch for in the fruits and vegetables section of grocery stores and farmers markets. I like blueberries on my morning raisin bran, and the little blue balls from some groceries don't taste like Arkansas farm blueberries. Strawberries are in the same category, but when Little Rock's Trio's has Arkansas strawberry shortcake on its menu, it's worth a journey.

If you are just trying to get food in your stomach to get through the day, eat the tasteless items mentioned above. But if you consider true homegrown fruits and vegetables as summer dining, take care what you buy. Look closely at where the fruit or vegetable was grown, and if on the blueberry package it says "Grown in the U.S.A.," remember California is in the U.S.A., and the tomatoes you see on some local shelves are probably not from Farmer Brown in Bradley County.

My first paying job was riding on the back of a tractor in a peach orchard, stirring up a barrel of worm spray as the owner sprayed his peaches. I was 11 years old, and the 50 cents an hour he paid me bought a ticket and popcorn to the double feature at the Ritz Theater in El Dorado.

And I was spoiled forever by being able to eat a ripe peach right off the tree.

There are places around the state where you can pick your own, and Woody's Peach Orchard near Hampton in Calhoun County can show you the difference in taste. While you are in the area, Suzanne's Fruit Farm will fix you up with blueberries that actually taste like blueberries.

Living on a farm means you live off the land, and at Christmas my mother would say, "Richard, I need two cups of black walnuts for my Christmas fudge." I knew that meant dragging out a tow sack filled with black walnuts from under the house and getting a hammer to knock off the black husks, then break open the walnuts.

Black walnuts are nothing like English walnuts in the grocery store, which you can crack with your bare hand. Not hardly. Black walnuts are tough, and it takes several solid licks to even open a crack, and several more to get down to the kernel. I don't think I have ever gotten an intact half and very few quarters. Getting two cups of black walnuts was almost a morning's work, but wow. The difference between English walnuts and Arkansas black walnuts is like cardboard tomatoes and homegrown ones.

And when you buy a cantaloupe, smell it. If it doesn't have that golden skin glow and strong cantaloupe scent, walk on by. And don't buy a watermelon with a brown stem. It will probably be overripe. A green stem and a clear thump will go a long way to giving you a perfectly ripe melon. Don't buy one until after July 4 because it probably won't be an Arkansas melon. And yes, Hope watermelons are worth the wait.

Living in the Natural State has lots of benefits, but sometimes you have to work to take advantage of them. When those Arkansas tomatoes from our friend at Moro Bay were put on the table with buttermilk and cornbread, we smiled--and dined.

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