A Golden Hill Vegetable Chain Letter that Knits the Neighborhood Together
By Anna Daniels Reprinted from The Publication San Diego’s Art Magazine September/October 1999
Editor’s Note: Author Steven Shepherd lived in Golden Hill at the time that he wrote In Praise of Tomatoes. It is an intimate glimpse into some of the businesses and people in Golden Hill circa 1996.
In Praise of Tomatoes
A Year in the Life of a Home Tomato Grower
Harper-Collins, New York, 1996
Available in City of San Diego libraries–call# 635.642/Shepherd
A good friend whom you haven’t seen for a while runs into you and wants to know what’s been going on in your life. You cast about in your mind for a bit and offer that you vacationed in England, your young son had a nasty bicycle accident, but is OK, and you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes.
And so we sum up a year of our lives, knowing that what we said is true and important, but sensing that the weight of hundreds of days has somehow slipped by, surely containing other equally important things, but we can’t seem to remember what they were. So we shrug and say “So what’s been happening with you?”
Steven Shepherd’s book chronicles the vacation to England, the bicycle accident, the medical diagnosis. But this book, which spans a full year, is a beautiful exercise in remembering daily observations and the small, but nonetheless, important revelations that are the stuff of a life well lived.
It is Shepherd’s passion for growing tomatoes, resulting in his tomato patch close to the sidewalk in one of San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods, that provides the framing “story” for his book. The story encompasses numerous connections that begin with soil and seeds and soon include family, neighbors, friends, a neighborhood and strangers past and present whose interests have also been ignited by the tomato.
This is a lively how-to book on tomato selection and propagation uniquely tailored to San Diego’s climate. The uninitiated is guided through the tomato varieties with names like Mortgage Lifter, Champion and the bio-engineered FlavrSvr, with attendant discussions on the insects, viruses and vagaries of climate and soil that exist, threatening to reduce one’s dreams of the world’s best, if not biggest, tomatoes to curled plants with yellowed leaves and no fruit. Because this book is about patience and attention to the subtleties of our own “seasonal rhythms” in San Diego, this information is meted out slowly throughout the course of the book, to be anticipated and savored.
Child-rearing and gardening are two activities that require one to be present. Really, truly present. You can’t turn your back on either one, for say a week, ignoring the minimal tending and nourishing to sustain life itself. Initially these are primarily custodial activities, often repetitive and having to attend to them when you’re tired, or want to be somewhere else can be a drudge. Even when the shift has occurred to strength and independence, the need for observation and guidance remains.
The strength and power in this modest book is Shepherd’s ability and desire to be present—in his own life. This capacity connects him to his neighbors, who bring him plates of pasta with homemade sauce from the tomatoes he has given them. He describes his passing on of tomatoes to neighbors on his street, which come back in the form of fresh basil and zucchini bread, as a “vegetable chain letter … that keeps knit the neighborhood together.” What a wonderful antithesis to the “Criminal Beware” neighborhood watch vigilante mentality that has surfaced in our same mid-city neighborhoods.
As Shepherd tends daily, when possible, to his plants on his neighborhood street, he has an opportunity to chat with people passing by, over the course of a year. “And there it was, the recognition, rich and humbling, and electric—as always—that someone I had not been prepared to see, someone I’d have thought I had little in common with, shared with me a deep interest. In something ordinary; and without seeking it, we had found a connection.”
The demands of tending are rewarded with something equally sustaining, and above all illuminating. The other strand in this book is the tomato’s need for light to grow. Frustrated at the book’s beginning by the wimpy seedlings that have sprouted and then just sat there, he moves flats with hundreds of the seedlings to his roof. No matter what he adds to the soil, or hand picks from the leaves, there is no compensation for a lack of light.
This observation reoccurred when he comments on his son’s academic passage to a school with high achievers. “Kids who are already high achievers will be lavished with advantage—a small class, special books, engaging classmates, a gifted teacher—and they will do well. … The formula is self-fulfilling. … Why shouldn’t kids who are less advantaged at the outset be treated this same way?”
I write this in my own backyard garden filled with August light. One Momotaro tomato has turned orange-pink and is ready for picking and I’m already anticipating the tomato salad I’ll consume at dinner tonight. And I also anticipate the not to distant day when I can give a few to my neighbor, an act Shepherd describes as “a form of the passing on of life’s sustenance, bounty, and promise, all at one time.”
Anna Daniels wrote book reviews for The Publication San Diego’s Art Magazine form 1998-2000, which was published by Jim Hammond and Dorothy Annette, Managing Editor.