Cliff Column

As the heat becomes unbearable, air conditioning, pools and the lake come to mind for many as relief.

Those are welcomed respites from the torturous humidity and temperatures, but it is also the time home-grown tomatoes begin to come in.

Those juicy red balls of fruit provide ketchup and pizza sauce to most, but for me, there is much more to the tomato. Home-grown ‘maters bring back memories, especially memories of everyday life with my dad.

I can remember many a day spent with my father tending to tomatoes — two rows and sometimes more, more than 100 feet in length and more than 100 plants. Those days would start in March tilling the dirt, adding lime and triple-13 Piedmont fertilizer. Dad would find those old sawdust piles for mulch to hold the moisture around the roots of Bonnie’s Better Boy plants purchased by the flat and buried deep in the carefully prepared soiled. When those piles of sawdust couldn’t be found, Dad and I would rake longleaf pine straw. That pine straw would also be used as he worked his honey bees.

What some consider an unbearable, hard day of labor, showed me hard work bears great fruit. That work produced the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.

Just what was it about Dad’s ‘maters?

Maybe it was the fertilizer. Maybe it was the mulch. Maybe it was letting the tomatoes become ‘maters on the vine.

Letting them ripen on the vine meant sharing a few with the birds.

It also meant they wouldn’t last long after picking. Five-gallon buckets at time, those precious red fruits would be picked. Some days more than 50 gallons worth would be gathered. We would always have plenty and dad shared the spoils of his sweaty work.

The tomatoes I find today in most stores wouldn’t even make the team for the minor leagues compared to Dad’s all-star tomatoes.

Yes, the extra work made a better product. The extra work also made a larger tomato where one slice would hang off the sides of a mayonnaised piece of Sunbeam bread much like limbs hanging over the sides of a pickup when cleaning hedges along the edges of property.

But I think more than hard work made Dad’s ‘maters great.

I remember going to work with my dad during summer breaks from school. I would tag along. I was ‘gofer.’ Go for this, go for that. I retrieved tools as Dad tried to patch up the county’s schools.

It’s lunch I remember most. They almost always included tomatoes. When in Daviston, we would venture a few hundred yards away to that little store run by the Morans and get a couple slabs from their stick of bologna. Those slabs would be the foundation for a slice of tomato in the sandwich made under a pecan tree.

In New Site, the sandwich was almost always made on the back steps of the old school facing the elementary school. It was under the shade canopy. I also learned why dogs lay on the ground. Those concrete steps and sidewalk in the shade all day were oh so cool. It didn’t matter the nap on the sidewalk left a little sand and dirt on the Tshirt.

Recently Dad was cooking chicken and my son helped Grandpa ‘mop’ the chicken after turning the halves and quarters of ‘yardbird.’ I took a few photos of the moment and didn’t think much of it.

Then Dad shared a photo of him with his dad, my grandfather, doing the same thing. My dad was likely about the age of my son. It was a black and white photo but full of colorful memories of a father and son relationship.

At that moment I realized what makes me crave Dad’s ‘maters and chicken.

It’s not the recipe or the work that goes into them. Everybody can follow Dad’s recipe. Every step can be followed down to a grain of salt falling on the freshly cut tomato, but it’s not the same.

It’s the time Dad spends with his son or grandson that makes the ‘mater sandwich or chicken half something no one else can duplicate.

Time is the secret recipe to great memories between a son, father and grandfather.

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.