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Ode to the last, glorious tomato of the season

Last Wednesday morning, just after 10 a.m., it was time. My quarry lay in wait beckoning me, setting aside any pretense of elusiveness. The moment had arrived. I walked into the small garden of my SouthPark patio home and picked my last tomato of the season.

The last tomato is an annual rite of passage for me. The calendar told me that autumn had begun officially more than two weeks earlier. Yet summer for me endured as long as my last tomato stood lonely vigil on the withering vine. Cherubic and scarlet as a Caribbean sunset, the tiny final homage to the autumnal equinox held out promise for one more chance to delight me with its simple acidic goodness.

My crop was spotty this year. The 20 starter plants that made their way from Pennsylvania to my patio home in the Carmel Crescent subdivision via UPS from Burpee Gardens had performed in bipolar fashion. Some did extremely well, while others yielded nary a single fruit.

Arriving mid-April amidst a marvel of modern packaging, I unfurled each little fellow, gently releasing them from their cardboard and welcoming them to their new digs in my soil.

I chose mail-order starter plants for the sheer variety that was offered. What gardener wouldn't embrace the joy of growing tomatoes with names like Razzle-Dazzle hybrids or Red Lightnings? I supplemented these choices with the more standard Super Sweets, Big Beefs and Black Pearl Hybrids. The latter three performed the best, with the former proving fickle and not receptive to my oft augmented and tilled brick-hard, red clay soil.

My goal of initial harvest by the fourth of July was easily achieved. I had my first tomato sandwich (toasted sourdough, mayonnaise and a Super Sweet, still warm from the sun) by the third week in June. The Black Pearls were the biggest surprise. Tear-drop shaped and slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball, these beauties developed a rich, deep purple hue that almost blackened the bottom half of the fruit when fully ripe. They are delicious in salads and eaten right out of hand.

The successive days and weeks yielded the foundation for countless BLTs, Caprese salads, spaghetti sauce, gazpacho and tomato risotto. As is my custom during the summer when my crop is bountiful, I eat tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My mother-in-law, Florence, tries to keep pace with me and is good for a tomato a day.

With the advent of fall, my destiny for the next nine months is consumption of unreasonable tomato facsimiles. Huddled with their uninspired brethren in store produce displays, the store-bought tomatoes that await me in the off-season will be choices of last resort. Largely devoid of taste, the uniformly spheroid globes, picked green in far off Mexican fields, will not often grace my cutting board during the winter months.

I'll occasionally break down and buy a hothouse heirloom, usually more expensive per pound than rib-eye, only to tease my taste buds and remind me of what lies in store for me next July.

I always think the next crop will be my best ever. When I say this out loud, my wife just rolls her eyes.

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