Tanqueray and tomatoes

The aesthete’s way to bigger and better Beefsteaks

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Find a good plant: Many varieties of heirloom tomato starts are sold at the Saturday Farmers’ Market between 1st and 2nd sts. on Wall Street in downtown Chico between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Dear L:

It’s been 14 weeks since you broke it off and 12 since I arrived in Chico. I do hope you’re well. I’ve been thinking about that little market in the Village where we’d go for fresh tomatoes Sunday mornings in June after cappuccinos and the Times. Remember how you loved the Better Boys and I liked the Whoppers? And then our fresh-tomatoes-and-mozzarella picnics in the park while we watched the roller-bladers. I do miss New York.

But c’est la vie, and I’m determined to make a new life for myself here in California. So I’m growing my own tomatoes. I hired a boy, Jonathan, to plant them for me. Yesterday, he took me shopping. We bought three tomato plants, and I ordered a pair of imported German gardening clogs from Martha Stewart.

This afternoon, Jonathan built some raised beds in my back yard while Miss Marilyn and I watched while I drank Tanqueray and tonics on the lawn in my new director’s chair—which, by the way, is the exact same one Billy Wilder used when he made Some Like It Hot. I bought it on an eBay auction for $10!

Jonathan really knows what he’s doing. First, he mixed some chicken manure—just a little disgusting!—into the soil, and then he added some starter fertilizer. He says once the plants get started I should keep them watered but not to the point where the ground is soggy. I’ll also need to stake them or use tomato cages because they get huge, and that will keep them from falling over.

He planted a Beefsteak and Better Boy in the raised beds and a Sweet 100 in a container—the man who lived here before me left a half-wine-cask planter on the patio, perfect for those cherry tomatoes. I’ll never forget when Michael tried to grow tomatoes in containers on his little rooftop over on East 67th. Turns out they didn’t get enough sun, and then he kept watering them way too long. Jonathan says you have to cut way back on the water once they’re mature so that they know to produce.

Remember that old joke we had about tomatoes as vegetables? You pulled one from the can that night when we were making the cioppino and said, “Vegetable? I think not! At least this one’s out!” I never laughed so hard.

Jonathan—he knows so much!—says that, not only do some people think that tomatoes are vegetables, but also American colonists used to think they were poisonous. The Aztecs and Incas were the first to cultivate them, and then they were brought to Europe sometime around the middle of the 1500s. In the early 19th century the Creoles started using them in gumbos and jambalayas here in the States. By around 1850, farmers all over the country were growing them. Today, California grows about a million pounds a year. The only state that grows more is Florida. They’re very high in vitamins A and C and a wonderful source of antioxidants. And way cheaper than dermabrasion. Dr. Epinards would approve.

Fortunately, Jonathan says the only thing I have to worry about once the plants start producing are hookworms—very unpleasant, apparently—but planting basil between the plants might keep them away. I’ll wait till my clogs come.

So, that’s the news from Chico. I hope everything’s fine with you. Perhaps some day you’ll come visit.

A la prochaine.


Fresh Mozzarella and Tomato Slices
Fresh mozzarella is nothing like the packaged dry mozzarella you put on pizza. It’s a soft, creamy-but-sliceable, low-fat cheese usually packed in water. Originally, it was made from the milk of water buffalo. Today, it’s made from cow’s milk, although The Galley in Chico carries fresh mozzarella made from buffalo. You can also get fresh mozzarella at S & S Produce or order it online at napastyle.com or cheesebigtome.com

One large slicing tomato (Ace, Beefsteak, etc.)

One ball fresh mozzarella

Fresh basil

Extra virgin olive oil

Slice the cheese and tomato into 1/8"-thick slabs and lay the cheese slices on top of the tomato slices. Sprinkle the cheese with finely chopped basil and olive oil. Cut into bite-sized pieces. A perfect appetizer, especially with a glass or two of decent pinot noir.