Love and tomatoes -- a natural combination

  • Tomatoes from the Garden City Harvest networks of farms in Missoula.

    Chad Harder
  • Rasa, a tomato-lover like her folks, Jeremy and Crissie.

    Jeremy N. Smith

When other women ask me how I proposed to my wife, the first thing I tell them is that Crissie doesn't like diamonds. They look at me with either contempt or condescension -- the former if they think I'm going to lecture them about African child armies, the latter if they think I'm fool enough to believe that Crissie didn't really want the rock. Either way, their follow-up question never varies: "Well, what did you propose to her with?"

And I say, "A tomato."

My wife is from Mississippi. There, the tomato-growing season starts the day after the Super Bowl and ends the night before Christmas. Drop seeds in the soil and the vines rise like tree trunks. Or so Southerners say.

"My grandmother turns 92 this summer and still gardens by golf cart," Crissie told me the spring we started dating. "I would never eat a tomato out of season."

But we lived in Montana. "What's tomato season here?" I said.

"Half of August and half of September," Crissie said. "Depending on first and last frost."

"That sounds like a lot of work for a sandwich topping."

Crissie pursed her lips. Southern women consider the word "stubborn" a compliment. "Tomatoes are important to me," she said.

I am not myself a gardener. At the same time we started dating, however, I joined a special community-supported agriculture farm. Run by a bearded, quick-to-laugh Army veteran and grizzly bear expert named Greg, it provided food not in the weekly shopping-basket style of other CSAs, but one vegetable at a time, once or twice total, in massive quantities: 150 pounds of potatoes, 120 pounds of onions, 100 pounds of squash, and so on. The idea was that this way one could store food for consumption all through the long Montana winter and spring. Basil and garlic became frozen pesto, for example, and winter squash was transformed into pumpkin pie. Tomatoes could be sliced and dried or canned as sauce. Cucumbers, of course, found their destiny as pickles.

So it was that Crissie and I became masters of different edible domains. She built backyard raised beds; stirred compost; planted, watered, weeded and harvested. I checked my email for messages with subject lines like "BEETS ARE IN!" then rode my bike trailer to the farm to haul home major poundage. Summers, Crissie cooked. Winter meals were my responsibility.

Two and a half years passed. Like other roots, my relationship with Crissie grew and deepened, and one feverish day in late August I decided to propose. First and foremost, I was in love. As well, though, Crissie had already agreed to spend the evening with me. Greg's cucumbers were in. She was going to help me make pickles.

At 5:00, Crissie met me in the kitchen. Assembled before us was a canning pot, glass jars and lids, sugar, vinegar, garlic, dill, mustard seeds and 10 pounds of fresh cucumbers. Crissie rolled up her sleeves. She washed her hands. She began to fill the pot.

"Hey," I said, through suddenly chattering teeth. "Wait. Can I t-t-talk to you?"

Crissie killed the water. "Before pickling?" she said. "Or after pickling?"

My heart beat hard. My mind went black. In my eagerness to propose, I realized, I had never thought through the exact requirements of the occasion: knee, question, ring.

I blinked and bit my nails.

"Instead of pickling?" Crissie said.

"Come." I led her to a backyard bench. "Sit," I said. "Close your eyes. I'll be back in a minute."

I ran inside and, in our junk drawer, found an empty pale blue ring box originating I knew not where. But what to put in it? I searched further for the proper token of my esteem for her. A Mao watch? No. Disneyland ears? Unh-uh. The high school letter I received for a three-month junior-year stint on Quiz Bowl? No way. For a few desperate seconds, I considered using the antlers from a friend's recent hunting trip. Yet these were not only too big by several orders of magnitude, but also the traditional symbol of the cuckold. Not an auspicious start to an engagement.

Dazed and disappointed, I walked outside empty-handed. I prepared to tell Crissie that that my "surprise" would have to wait. Each step I took, anticipating the final letdown, felt like hours. Finally, to buoy myself, I stopped, closed my eyes, took a deep breath -- and smelled fresh soil. When my eyes opened again it was to see our garden and the sight, twinkling brighter than a diamond, of a resplendent red orb.

"Honey?" Crissie squirmed. "Is that you?"

"Almost ready!" I said. I grabbed the tomato from the vine. Back in the kitchen, I cut a slice from the center, placed it in the ring box atop a tiny square of wax paper, and seasoned the red circle with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Then, unable to help myself, I cut another slice, seasoned it, too, and popped it on my tongue. When CSA tomatoes came, I'd get them by the score. Greg, though, waited until the last day possible for harvest. I needed something to steel the heart now. Indeed: firm but giving, sweet but substantial, the tomato in my mouth was round, smooth, warm and ready as love itself.

I swallowed hard and walked back outside, box in hand. My stomach rumbled -- happily. I knelt before Crissie. "OK," I said. "You can open your eyes."

Now tomatoes are important to me, too.

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