Friday, September 5, 2008

Other Things That Smell Good

One of the best things about loving perfume is the way it opens up the rest of the olfactory world.

I live in the American South. There is a song I used to hear on the radio, and the best line in it was “You can’t buy love or home-grown tomatoes.” (I think it should’ve been home-growed tomatoes, but I guess the record company thought that would be a little too, uh, country.) My city, Atlanta, is now filled with transplants, but there are still a few of us natives around. You can tell, on any street, who we are. We’re the ones with the tomato plants. We grow them in pots on our balconies if we have to.

What is it about home-growed tomatoes that makes them so extraordinary? Even the fancy heirloom kinds you can buy now at upscale markets – the Black Krims, the Brandywines – don’t have that smell. It’s been chilled right out of them, I guess. The scent of a growing tomato is grassy and weedy, but the taste is meaty and sharp/sweet – sugar and acid in just the right balance. When you bite into one, especially if it’s warm from the sun, the flavor bursts like fireworks. It’s everything good about the sensory world.

Even the leaves have a vegetal but incense-like fragrance, and when you work on the plants, the slightest contact releases that pungent scent. (I’ve read that one of the molecules Jean-Claude Ellena used in Un Jardin en Mediterranee was tomato leaf, and I can smell it in those first few notes. They’re fleeting, but it’s good to know they’re in there.)

And lime. It’s so simple. In Mexico, they give you a little plate of quartered limes with every meal. You squeeze the juice into your beer, and then over everything else. When I slice into a lime, and the citrus oils in the peel vaporize, I’m instantly back at Rosarita Beach, or Tulum, or Mismaloya. The juice of a lime, some sliced green onion (“scallions” to Northerners), a couple of big tomatoes, chopped; a clove (one only) of garlic, mashed with salt, a handful of chopped cilantro; some olive oil, a minced jalapeno pepper (coat your hands with olive oil before doing this) and some diced avocado if you have it. Mix. In southern California they call this “salsa cruda” – cruda meaning crude – and it is. You ladle it onto everything; fish, grilled meat, tortillas, black beans -- and drink beer laced with lime juice.

In a couple of months, or after the first frost, it’ll be time to pull the tomato plants up, spread the depleted soil with compost and shredded bark, and mix it in with a pitchfork. We cover that with a layer of newspaper to suppress cold-weather weeds, and then the fragrant pine mulch we use in winter. (Nothing smells more like North Georgia than pine bark and pine needles.)

By then, it will be cold. We’ll load firewood into the shed, and then rest, with some mulled wine (allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ordinary red wine, brown sugar and, my secret ingredient, an ounce or so of nothing-special brandy for each cup. Keep it warm in a crock pot. Imbibe freely, while tending the fire.

Most of our neighbors have switched to gas logs, but I never will. A fire that has no fragrance?

What on earth for?


ScentScelf said...

My grandfather grew up in Missouri, but spent most of his life in northern Michigan. Hence, I can hear a voice from the 45th parallel telling me about the power of "the home-growed" tomato. :)

I love that tomato leaf smell myself, even though my nose still wrinkles up when I encounter it. Many happy associations of working in the garden. And I still sometimes ponder the magic that makes a tomato leaf curl if confronted by tobacco. (BTW, does that mean I can't check on the tomatoes if I am wearing Habanita, for example?)

I have five varieties out in the garden myself. It was kind of tough summer for the tomatoes up here--delightfully moderate for those of us who don't like too much heat, but a bit chilly for the tomaters.

Our "smelly fires" are outdoors in the fire pit...

...thanks for helping my nose review summer and get ready for fall!

Anonymous said...

Hi scentscelf -- thanks for your thoughts! Even here in Georgia, our summer started a little late and is ending a little early, but friends in northern latitudes tell me the didn't really have one. Wonder what's going on.

Tomatoes are subject to a virus that afflicts tobacco, called the tobacco mosaic virus. I didn't know the leaves curled though! Does that happen right away? Any of that nightshade family -- peppers, eggplants -- can also be killed by it. I've always hears that smokers should wash before gardening. Habanita...hmmm. I wonder? The geek in me wants to spray some on a tomato leaf now and see what happens!

enlightningbug said...

I remember that song (Can't Buy Love or Home Grown Tomatoes) but not who sang it. I was much too young. Any idea? My dad still quotes it to this day and I think he'd get a kick out of having his very own recording.

Olfacta said...

Hi enlightening bug --

Guy Clark wrote and recorded the song. There was another song about home-grown tomatoes by John Denver.

Good luck!

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