Caroline Vaughan

Summertime in the South

Summer is when the South comes alive with more than just heat – it comes alive with flavor. Right about now is the time when our watermelons are rapping a bit hollower, the squash are getting a bit too productive, and we’ve eaten enough beans to last us for a few decades.

But, if we’ve been good and patient and chased all the caterpillars off, our tomatoes are coming into their own.Markets become a mosaic of colorful orbs with everyone’s smile stretching that much further. Tomato sandwiches on white bread with healthy smears of mayonnaise are eagerly tugged out of lunchboxes. Juicy slices of purple take the pork chop’s place on dinner plates. The weighty scent of ripeness makes the air around gardens sag, pulling sighs out of passersby.

For the farmer, tomatoes are worth their weight in gold, a king among kings, and the instigator of a fight for bragging rights. In New Orleans, the season’s first Creole tomatoes are auctioned off to the highest bidder—usually for thousands of dollars. In Charlotte, North Carolina, folks host tomato parties.

Closer to home, everyone recalls that particular harvest, when the tomatoes grew to be this big, and were so sweet you could’ve eaten them with a dollop of whipped cream. In some towns, tomato husbandry can become divisive. Your neighbor’s plants are ahead of the curve and plentiful. “Oh, you got how many? Huh. We’ve been harvesting for weeks now!” Folks who are normally friendly visit your garden, and point out how your tomato leaves are looking a little blighty, while theirs are doing “just fine.”

Crowds at the farmer’s market hold forth at their favorite stalls, and conversations about the weather turn to arguments about which variety has the best flavor. But while we freely share our criticisms, we more often share our bounty. Summer underscores what makes Southerners Southerners: the plates loaded with vegetables and hard work, and the love of sharing. You cannot live near a fruitful garden without tasting its abundance – the camaraderie of the South will not allow it. Whether you’re in a holler or a big city, you’re always in a community, and your neighbor’s lush harvest becomes your own. A little trip down to Carolina sent me back with a basket full of zucchini, patty pans, and homemade bread, and you can’t visit my house without being sent away with pickling cukes, hot peppers, and crookneck squash. Because that’s what we do.