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John Eggers column: How are your tomatoes?

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When my school superintendent told me to take my tray back to the table and finish my Spanish rice, which contained chunks of cooked tomatoes, that was the last time I ate a hot lunch at school. I was in first grade. That was the last time I also ate a cooked tomato. It wasn't until 20 years later when I ate my first fresh tomato. No doubt it was covered with layers of French dressing. Today, I am a tomato "liker" but not a "lover".

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There are not many people like me who grew up with a genuine dislike for tomatoes. A whopping 93 percent of gardeners grow tomatoes in their gardens. What does that mean? What is so great about a fresh tomato?

I can vividly recall my friend, Joe, picking tomatoes right off of the vine in their family garden and eating them as if they were apples. My mother and grandmother canned jars and jars of tomatoes, as did yours, I'm sure. Although I still don't like cooked tomatoes, the smell of boiling tomatoes over a hot stove on a cool fall day evokes many childhood memories.

When my wife cooks her tomatoes to make tomato juice, I call it "country cooking." I will hang around the kitchen to just savor that memorable aroma.

People ask, "How are your tomatoes doing?" "Well, not so good. They have a blight or something," some will reply. Others will say, "I have so many tomatoes, I could feed the entire city." A bad crop of tomatoes can spoil an entire summer; a good crop brings on big smiles. Can you ever have enough tomatoes. Most of you would say "no."

I tried a new strategy this year about growing tomatoes. The only place in our yard that is not shady is too wet. To solve this problem, I put our tomato plants in several old wagons and an old rusty wheelbarrow so I can move them around to the sunny spots. I call it my parking lot garden. They are doing fabulous.

Speaking of fabulous tomatoes, go to the Stauffer farm near Leonard and you will see tomatoes the size of grapefruit and all are perfect. They are growing on 10-foot tall vines in a kind of huge plastic tunnel. Really, I have never seen so many perfect tomatoes. Need more tomatoes for canning? Go to Leonard. When you get through, stop at the Side Track Bar for one of northern Minnesota's best burgers.

After I got married, I have to admit, I grew to like a fresh tomato although I still pass on big chunks of cooked tomatoes. Kathy uses frozen tomato juice for her chili and spaghetti. She makes the best. She also makes a great BLT sandwich.

My son will eat sliced tomatoes between two pieces of bread and nothing else. I enjoyed the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes," but I don't think I would enjoy eating a fried green tomato. How about lots of tomato sauce on a pizza? Not for me.

About this time of year, gardeners are trying to get rid of their tomatoes.

They bring them to work to give to anyone who wants them. We find them on our front doorsteps. You may even find them along the curb with a sign that reads, "Free tomatoes".

You might think that Minnesota is No. 1 in tomato production but Florida is the winner. If you like orange juice and tomato juice equally, you may want to move to Florida. Just be careful of those gators.

When I was a kid we used to pick rotten tomatoes and throw them at telephone poles. Telephone poles were always great targets -- they didn't move. Garrison Keillor tells the story about how he hit his sister in the butt with a tomato while she was leaning over to pick tomatoes. He named the story "Tomato Butt".

Minneapolis celebrates a Tomato Fest each summer where thousands of participants engage in the world's biggest tomato fight. There are lots of tomato butts when this bash is over. Maybe they got the idea from Garrison.

As you know, tomatoes are really a fruit but our government classified them as a vegetable in the late 1800s so they could be taxed under custom regulations. New Jersey still calls the tomato its state vegetable. Arkansas uses tomatoes as both the state fruit and the state vegetable.

In case you are wondering, I could find no listing of a state vegetable for Minnesota but our state fruit is the Honey Crisp apple and our state grain is wild rice.

I am a fruit lover and I can't see tomatoes mixed in with fruits. Can you imagine a bowl of fruit on your kitchen table containing oranges and plums and apples and bananas and tomatoes? No, I don't think so.

Each of us eats about about 23 pounds of tomatoes a year. I'm sorry, but I don't fulfill my quota so there is a tomato lover out there who eats about 35 pounds a year. Maybe it's you.

Once the tomato season is over, we might as well forget about eating tomatoes again. The tomatoes we buy in the store, which come from some South American farm taste a bit like the dirt they came from. We may as well be eating asparagus, which, I'm sorry to tell you, also has no taste but don't get me started. Kathy worships asparagus.

It's funny how an early school experience can affect your eating habits like mine did about eating tomatoes. On that first school day when superintendent Mahler made me eat that Spanish rice with the big chunks of cooked tomatoes, I'm sure I was thinking as I walked home from school about finding a rotten tomato and visualizing Mr. Mahler bending over to make a perfect target for an incoming tomato.

Enjoy your fresh tomatoes while they last. Their days are numbered.

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