Homegrown and Handpicked

You have always been there for me. Whenever summertime would roll around, you were always there. In fact, in my book, you WERE summer. Summer couldn’t happen without you.

Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of other great memories about summer. There are precious few memories, for instance, more wonderful than ball games on a radio; or the sounds of distant children laughing; or crickets singing; or third-degree sunburns strong enough to damage your liver.

Even so, nothing compares to you.

Maybe it’s all a matter of body chemistry. Maybe you and I just work well together. Maybe your pH and my chemical makeup fit together like puzzle pieces. I don’t know. Truth be told, I don’t even know what pH is.

All I know is that when I was growing up, I would slice you with a kitchen knife, place you on white Bunny bread, and slather you with mayonnaise. Then I would eat you. And if I wasn’t wearing your seeds and juices all over my T-shirt afterward, I had done it wrong.

Other times I would pluck you right off the vine and eat you like an apple. You were warm from the sun, and your vines were fuzzy.

My mother could grow you better than anyone else in the county. She had a garden that seemed like it was about the size of a rural school district. Then again, that was back during childhood, everything seemed bigger then.

Mama had so many plants that she was collecting five-gallon buckets of ripe ones every single morning. We were giving you away to neighbors, coworkers, strangers, and anyone who could fog up a mirror.

There was so much fruit coming off your vines that we set up a little vegetable stand at the end of our driveway. I sat behind a folding table all summer, watching people pay good money to buy you.

They would stuff cash into a jelly jar, filled with dollar bills, and smile like I had sold them something illegal.

Roadside customers wiped us out, and I became a very rich man. But my mother never let me keep a cent because she was a fundamentalist.

“That cash belongs to God and me for all our hard labor,” she would say. Fundamentalists use the word labor all the time.

So God got all the cash. I put it in the offering plate that Sunday, and for all I know the money probably went to fund the United Baptists Against Dancing and Cough Syrup Foundation.

Even so, you were always there. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that. This quarantine has been hard for these last few months. And it’s only getting more difficult for me.

Before COVID-19, my wife and I were travelling around the U.S. for work. It was so much fun. I was writing a lot, staying in lots of cheap hotels, and eating “continental breakfast” food that had been produced by a nuclear plastics laboratory.

Then it was all over. Suddenly we were all stuck at home. I don’t want to be Johnny Raincloud here, but being stuck at home makes me feel useless. Like I have no purpose.

I enjoyed those road trips. I liked stopping at side-of-the-road barbecue joints on a Sunday afternoon. Shoot, I miss simply going to the grocery store. I especially enjoyed the interesting people I was meeting before the quarantine.

Like the 19-year-old girl who told me her father had died a few years earlier. He’d committed suicide. Her dad had been a fiddle player. After he died, she took up the fiddle. Today she plays in a great band.

I loved interviewing the man who survived cancer not once, not twice, but five times. A man who was in his early 70s, who said that cancer was scared of him.

I loved meeting the elderly woman who once cut the hair of Hank Williams. The 11-year-old boy who made deviled eggs for local funerals and donated them free of charge. The old man who rescued feral cats.

But now I just sit on my porch, writing on this laptop, wondering what’s going to happen to our lives. Am I going to ever be useful again? Will anyone ever need me?

I know. It’s silly. There are much bigger problems out there than my small life. So I’m not going to keep complaining. What I’m getting at is: Even though the world has changed, YOU haven’t.

Throughout history, there have been troubles and turmoils and pandemics galore. Sometimes, the earth has threatened to bust apart at the seams, but YOU keep coming back every summer.

You grow big, red, sweet, and beautiful. You adorn the plates of supper tables, in all your midsummer glory. And those of us who are fortunate enough to know someone with a backyard garden, are fortunate enough.

You never let me down. Every time I want to give up, every time I think that there is nothing left in the world that is lovely, wonderful, or full of goodness, there you are. Growing right on the vine, like something from a fairytale.

Cherokee Purples, Yellow Lillians, Big Boys, Better Boys, Brandywines, Beefsteaks, Big Beefs, Green Zebras, Camparis, McDreamys, Mortgage Lifters, Texas SuperStars, Black Krims, Early Girls, Hillbillies, White Queens, Yellow Pears, or heirlooms. You make me believe in good again.

May God bless the humble tomato. Because it certainly blesses me.

44 comments

  1. Bob May - May 16, 2020 10:15 am

    Thanks for your praises for the lovely, lowly tomato. I am biting into one as I write to you, Sean Dietrich, at 5:06AM. Rustle up some peanut butter, slather it on fresh, fresh white bread and adorn with thick slices of a summered ‘mater. Your little taste-buds will do double back-flips. Honest.

    Reply
  2. Neill Morgan - May 16, 2020 10:16 am

    This piece is the perfect sequel to yesterday’s: the tomato crop is something to look forward to. Our growing season is a few weeks behind yours (Maryland) so my wife just planted the little seedlings In the ground this week. I feel like a kid on a car trip, “are we there yet?”

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  3. Cindy Kelly - May 16, 2020 11:02 am

    You were right. If you don’t wear the juice or seeds on your shirt (or it dosen’t run down your arm) you aren’t doing it right.. My Dad and I used to plant tomatoes and race to see who got ripe ones first.
    Soon you will be back to travelling and meeting those special people with the interesting backstories..You are needed Sean. You introduce us to these special people and warm memories..Thank you.

    Reply
  4. GaryD - May 16, 2020 11:05 am

    I was in my sixties before I could eat a tomato and then only if it was on a hamburger or a BLT. Everyone in the family loved them. I guess I was the oddball.

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  5. Karen Jaeb - May 16, 2020 12:00 pm

    Something deep within, as soon as I saw the title, told me this was going to be about the tomato. Not the pale, mealy ones we are subjected to from the grocery stores. I am blessed to have access to our small town grocery stores and fruit stands who carry the highly prized Slocomb, AL grown tomatoes. In fact, I’ve enjoyed a tomato sandwich slathered with mayo, salt, and lots of black pepper several times for lunch this week. I remember your column on mayo too. The right mayo makes all the difference!

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  6. Cathi Russell - May 16, 2020 12:05 pm

    I can’t wait for my Cherokee Purples to cet big enough to cover a piece of white bread! An ode to the tomato…perfect timing!

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  7. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 16, 2020 12:20 pm

    The tomato is a fruit that I learned to love only after spending a summer with my grandparents on their suburban four-acres in northeast Kansas as a teenager. Before that, tomatoes were the tasteless lumps, or squishy bags my Mom found at the store. Grandpa had a wonderful vegetable garden with lots of things growing profusely – several of them I had not been fond of previously. There were okra, turnips, cucumbers, onions, chives, radishes, carrots, beets, two kinds of green beans, potatoes, corn. The list goes on. Every day, I worked in that garden, pulling weeds, picking caterpillars, watering, and harvesting. Grandpa taught me what and when to pick. Some tomato plants – special ones – lived in his rose garden next to the house. These were the treasured ones, but by the end of that summer, every tomato was treasure to me – even those green ones that Grandma sometimes breaded and fried to go with lunch.

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  8. Margaret Angell - May 16, 2020 12:20 pm

    Sean, I feel the same way about tomatoes as you do. That is the highlight of summer… Nothing says “summer” like a ‘mater sammich made with a home grown ripened on the vine tomato on white light bread slathered with mayonnaise and salt and pepper. It will make your tongue beat your brains out! Just thinking about it makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

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  9. D Moore - May 16, 2020 12:23 pm

    Tomato, green pepper, celery, feta….”foofy” salad. Can hardly wait. In the ground & treated like precious guests!!

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  10. MR - May 16, 2020 12:32 pm

    Hey, Sean, you DO have a purpose, you ARE useful! Your blog is keeping the rest of us sane! You bring us laughter and heartwarming stories and most of all- hope in mankind!

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  11. Robin Mangum - May 16, 2020 12:33 pm

    AMEN Brother Sean!! If I can’t get homegrown tomatoes, it is NOT summer.

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  12. Teri Gresham - May 16, 2020 12:35 pm

    You are right!! There is nothing like homegrown tomatoes 😋 and a true sign of summer. I have already pick at least 30 off my plants to share with neighbors.

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  13. Patricia Thrash - May 16, 2020 12:42 pm

    For just one moment of reading, I felt the warmth of summer (even though I am a winter girl) and relived the memories of my youth in my grandmother’s garden behind 7-11 in Warrington, FL. I smelled the morning air of my mother’s small garden off the backdoor which was shaded more than sunny (probably why everything grew so well with burning straight up in Florida). Thank you. Your writing carried me away to another time and place, when I needed it so!

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  14. Karen - May 16, 2020 12:50 pm

    You brought back a great memory of my Dad who died in 2014. When My Dad returned from the Korean War, he bought a cement block house using the VA loan. It is the first home I remember. He also bought the lot next to it, using it to grow vegetables. One year he planted over half the garden in tomatoes, to my mother’s dismay. It was a great summer! I ate tomatoes like they were apples until my mouth broke out in a rash from all the acid. Tomato & mayo sandwiches were also a treat. If I had all those tomatoes today, I would be making marinara sauce (I married an Italian). As an adult, I went back to that house and lot. It was so small! The house was about 900 square feet and the extra lot was smaller than some of these zero lot line lots today. Back then it was large because I was small, but very happy with the world and tomatoes

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  15. Dianne - May 16, 2020 12:51 pm

    Thank you for the reminder that it is the simple things we are to be thankful for every day. We’re all bored and tired of being quarantined, but I have my Heirloom tomatoes growing in my yard (I already have three little tomatoes showing), and I know that it won’t be long until I slather Duke’s mayonnaise on white bread, slice those beauties, put them on the bread (and sometimes with a very thinly sliced Vidalia onion) and sometimes lean over the sink to eat the sandwich, because they are so deliciously juicy!! Have a blessed day, and don’t forget…..you are valuable and very useful.

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  16. Leah - May 16, 2020 12:52 pm

    I am enjoying your posts every morning and YOU have inspired me to start writing again. I’d say that’s a pretty good purpose. BTW I haven’t been able to find a good tomato in Florida in the six years I’ve been here! Where are they???

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  17. Leah - May 16, 2020 12:53 pm

    Maryland tomatoes are the best!!! I can’t find a good tomato in Florida! I miss them.

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  18. Jan - May 16, 2020 1:10 pm

    One of the very best things God created – a juicy, ripe tomato. They just don’t seem to taste the same when you buy them in the store. You may feel useless but you are not! You help so many people to remember and to focus on the important things in life. Thank you!

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  19. Berryman Mary M - May 16, 2020 1:16 pm

    I never was a fan of tomatoes, but gradually got to where I could eat cherry tomatoes, or Roma tomatoes chopped in small pieces. Then last summer at the ripe old age of 67, a friend of mine gave me a few tomatoes out of her garden. I sliced the tomatoes on a plate, drizzled with olive oil, tossed on a bit of feta cheese and fresh cracked pepper and I though I had achieved nirvana! Can’t wait to repeat the experience this summer. Thanks, Sean. You are keeping us sane everyday and THAT is an important job!

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  20. Keloth Anne - May 16, 2020 1:37 pm

    Homegrown tomatoes just make life much happier 🥰🥰
    You and Jamie hang in there and stay healthy ♥️

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  21. Eddy - May 16, 2020 1:43 pm

    In my expert culinary opinion there’s nothing better, more straight forward, and simplier than a ‘mater n lotsa extra mayo samich! Btw, I’ve read just over half of WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN. I’m obviously taking my time and enjoying it muchly. March 3, 2020 when Lori and I met Y’all at the booksigning in Greenwood, in addition to your performance, was a really nice evening! It seems like a longer time ago. We appreciate your writings and posts even more so with all that’s happening. I LOVE Y’ALL!

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  22. JK - May 16, 2020 1:54 pm

    I’m with you brother! I will not buy or eat a tomato out of th grocery stores. They ought to be charged with false advertising. Those are not real tomatoes. Home grownup are literally the best thing about summer. I’ve got to go. I need to do some planting. Love you articles.

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  23. shellypain - May 16, 2020 2:09 pm

    Guy Clark sung it best.
    https://youtu.be/9tj4wIKMqEE

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  24. Tammy Moody - May 16, 2020 2:34 pm

    Planted 13 plants and had to cover them with every piece of Tupperware we own last weekend! New for us this year are Burger Chef and Oxheart! Y’all come to IL in July and I’ll have tomatoes and Dukes ready! xx

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  25. Julie Y - May 16, 2020 2:41 pm

    I am pretty sure I have never (in 59 years) encountered a tomato like you and your commenters have described. Now I will be on a quest to find one and try a tomato and mayo sandwich. Thanks for (yet again) expanding my world, Sean!

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  26. AUTigrr - May 16, 2020 2:55 pm

    Sean, I confess, I am a sinner. I have to have my mater sandwich with yellow mustard, not mayo. Please forgive me.

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  27. AUTigrr - May 16, 2020 2:56 pm

    Best songwriter writer singer ever imho.

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  28. AUTigrr - May 16, 2020 2:57 pm

    In reference to Guy Clark

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  29. Linda Jo - May 16, 2020 3:19 pm

    The moment you step back on stage, you will be greeted with a standing ovation and thunderous applause. (And I want to be in that number!) We miss you and know you are getting great material to entertain us about the ‘quarantine of 2020’! Take care, we love you.

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  30. Heather Miller - May 16, 2020 3:53 pm

    My favorite sandwich growing up, on unhealthy white bread. Enough mayo to stop my arteries from working, and if I was lucky, my mother would put a slice of bologna in the mix.
    The very real problem you bring up is the lack of something to look forward to today. Looking forward to my visiting the rooms of my house, which I have memorized, and the grocery store, are really not huge events. BUT, I have two luscious looking tomatoes that are going to give their all for me this weekend, slathered with mayo on semi-unhealthy bread, while I sit in the den watching Hallmark kissy-kissy movies I have seen a dozen times. I’m 82, my arteries are still okay, and I look forward to this day.

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  31. Charlie - May 16, 2020 4:08 pm

    Thank you for this great tribute to the tomato. Reminds me of the song that says, “There are only two things that money can’t buy. That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.” And I truly love home grown tomatoes. Keep writing and lifting spirits. We need you now more than ever.

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  32. Linda Moon - May 16, 2020 4:33 pm

    Backyard tomatoes! My family labored for lots of those home-grown tomatoes, and they blessed us everyone. The children are grown, so now I just run over to the Market to get fresh tomatoes. I dabbled in Fundamentalism for a short time – SHORT – and I don’t have a need to return there now. I’ve enjoyed my road trips to your events and will return after quarantine ends to see you and visit with friends and family in the vicinity. Your last event I had tickets for was cancelled. It was to be a very worthy event in a non-Fundamentalist church, so I donated the ticket refund to them in honor of you and Jamie. That gave me a sense of purpose, and you often do too, Sean. You bless me, and my wonderful oncologist knows that blessings from you and other people I know and love (who happen to be a lot like you) are good like a medicine…even if one needs chemotherapy or shots or other medicinal aides along with the merry heart that all of you give to me. God bless you back. I’m blessed by you, a creative family, and Him.

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  33. Nell Thomas - May 16, 2020 5:12 pm

    Sean: not only are your stories entertaining- which is great therapy alone.-They also inspire many to respond- revealing their own thoughts, concerns and experiences. Writing is one of the most therapeutic activities I know of. It sure works for me. Thanks for sharing your stories and hope you don’t get overwhelmed with ours.

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  34. Nell Thomas - May 16, 2020 5:15 pm

    I was trying to decide what for lunch. Now I know- a tomato sandwich. Thanks again.

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  35. Ann - May 16, 2020 5:49 pm

    I smiled throughout this whole column… in fact I just finished a big red juicy one… none are “quite like” Michigan ones… but homegrown here are pretty close…
    warm off off the vine is heavenly!

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  36. junebugjrgirl - May 16, 2020 5:59 pm

    Oh Sean, you are as worthy to me as the best tomato sandwich you ever ate!!!! Thanks for all you write, Cindy J.

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  37. junebugjrgirl - May 16, 2020 6:01 pm

    AMEN!

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  38. Jess Rawls - May 16, 2020 7:49 pm

    Sean, I, too, love good, vine-ripened tomatoes….there’s nothing quite like a GOOD tomato. Hang in there, man, this virus imposed confinement won’t last forever….at least I hope not. Keep writing because so many of us enjoy reading your columns or whatever they’re called.

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  39. Bkr - May 16, 2020 10:24 pm

    HOW WHY does a story about tomatoes make me cry?? Love this and love you and LOVE tomatoes. Don’t stop.

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  40. April Ellington - May 16, 2020 11:10 pm

    There’s nothing better. I’ve raised my family in a small Ohio town and they don’t know “tomato sandwiches” here. I grew up in Texas but spent a lot of time at my grandparents house in Mobile, Alabama (actually Eight Mile). My grandpa too had a garden as big as a football field. He grew the most beautiful tomatoes I’ve ever seen. Put a big, juicy slice on white bread with mayo and a bit of salt and pepper, nothing else – Heaven! I’m 50 now and my grandparents have been gone a while. I miss lazy summers as a child at their home. Grandpa always put up a big tire swing in the backyard tree for us. Grandpa had a green thumb! It’s true. Besides tomatoes, he grew the best speckled butter beans too. I spent time snapping green beans with my grandma and you probably did that too. He had fig trees and huge blueberry bushes. The other thing I miss are his gorgeous azalea bushes that ran the length of his driveway on both sides. Their yard was like The Garden of Eden to me. Thanks for bringing back those memories while we sit in quarantine waiting on summer.
    April in Marysville, Ohio

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  41. Christina - May 16, 2020 11:17 pm

    Sean, please keep blessing us with these stories of tomatoes, dogs, anything you like. Always brings a smile, tears and a whole lot of goodness.

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  42. Dee Frances Hoomes Wichman from Damascus, AL but now of Ocean Springs, MS - May 17, 2020 12:07 am

    Love your writing so yes, you are needed and always will be as long as you keep
    em coming! I, too, love tomato sandwiches. I also like banana sandwiches but what I like even better is squash, sweet potatoes, and my favorite…..fried okra. When I was young and lived in Damascus, we had biscuits every morning. A snack of fast food was a cold biscuit with a leftover piece of sausage or some fig preserves or mayhaw jelly from the safe. Corn bread was always served at dinner and supper and light bread was only used for sandwiches. I miss those days and your writing takes me home, if only for the time it takes me to read through and remember. I love you.

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  43. John McCullough - May 17, 2020 6:07 pm

    You forgot Mr. Stripey! 🤣

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  44. Anne Swinson Godwin - May 17, 2020 8:30 pm

    I have a little garden with cherry, better boy, plum, and yellow-something tomatoes. They taste so good. There’s just nothing to beat the taste of a home-grown tomato. I was glad to see that Mr. Stringfellow, around the corner, has his tables and tent ready to sell tomatoes. He used to grow them, but now gets them from a little farm in Lucedale. If he’s not outside, you weigh them, pay $1.50 a pound (not sure about this year’s prices) and put your money in the cigar box on the table. If you need another story, he must be in his 90s. I bet he’s got lots of stories. When are you coming to Mobile? I’d love to set up an event for you.

    Reply

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