Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fruit or veg?

One of my first activities when I come to the island is to stop by Marco's nursery and buy a few tomato plants. I pot them for the porch, then wait in the sometimes forlorn hope that a few fat fruits will mature before we decamp in late March.

Tomatoes have been a food staple in Central America for over five thousand years. They started out as small, bitter berries growing on bushes of the nightshade family in the western deserts of South America, and were domesticated in Mexico, or so I learn from Harold McGee's big, wonderful book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The nightshades are a Charles Addamsish family of plants, full of macabre chemicals, some toxic, and it must have taken some time for the Aztecs to breed an edible fruit. Europeans were slow to adopt the tomato, perhaps because of its similarity to deadly nightshade. And now, look, in the U.S. the tomato is second only to the potato in veggie popularity.

To be frank, it's not the eating that is my purpose, but the calming influence of watching something taking its own sweet time to grow.

Most of what we have on this tropic plot grows rank and wild. Sea lettuce, bur grass, love vine: Turn your back for a minute and they'll take over the yard, turning the house into Sleeping Beauty's castle. They don't so much grow as explode. Love vine will send out a voracious tendril twenty feet looking for a green plant to terrorize; once it gets a grip it will invest a tree or shrub in a smothering cope of tangled orange, all with untoward haste.

My tomatoes, by contrast, have a more languorous lifestyle, more suited to the pace I try to cultivate on the island. I drowse in the porch's hammock chair, my book a-flop in my lap, look at my tomato plants through half-closed lids, and think Yes, what's the hurry, we have nowhere to go, nothing to do, might as well take a snooze.