I count myself among the millions of tomato fanatics who obsess over the lush red fruit during the summer months. In our Southern California back yard, we grew Mortgage Lifters, Brandywine and tiny Yellow Pear tomatoes, which rarely made it to the kitchen because my 4-year-old daughter simply devoured them on the vine.
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But there is one variety that I have failed to grow, to my great dismay. It’s an heirloom breed that my Uncle Richard received from a Mennonite farmer in Virginia more than 20 years ago. He gave some to my mother a year later. I don’t know what the breed is. My family simply calls them “Mennonite tomatoes,” but apparently that is the name for a large variety of tomatoes. Whatever variety they really are, they are delicious, and my family has been growing them and saving the seeds from year to year.
I tried to grow my mother’s Mennonite tomato seeds in California with dismal results. I once gave seeds to my friend Daniel, a master tomato grower, and even he had no luck with them. Eventually I gave up, deciding that Mennonite tomatoes simply weren’t suited for Southern California. The difference between the sultry, sticky Shenandoah summers, and the baking desert heat of Los Angeles was too much for the seeds.
Searching for rooster sauce
I was reminded of the difference in sharp detail this past month, as I found myself once again a native of Virginia. My husband’s job has taken him to Washington, D.C., and our family has exchanged the micro-climate of Mediterranean L.A. for the tidewater seasons of Potomac-adjacent Virginia.
It has not been a particularly easy switch, food-wise.
My first trip to the local grocery store was a revelation. After 20 years of experiencing the abundance of L.A.’s greens, I knew better than to wheel my shopping cart anywhere near the produce aisle. I’d already scouted out the location of the closest farmers market and saved my produce list for the Saturday morning market at the local train station. Even so, it still took longer than expected to stock my pantry. Although much of the shopping was easy — milk, salt, olive oil were all purchased without incident — there were a few items that eluded me.
I searched desperately for Herdez Salsa Ranchera and the spicy red Sriracha Chili Sauce, commonly called “rooster sauce” in our house and many other homes in Los Angeles. These two items are pantry staples in my house mostly because I’m the only one in my family who likes really spicy food. I know that when I’m in the doldrums or I’ve had one too many demands for boxed mac and cheese from my daughters, I can splatter red rooster sauce over almost anything and call it delicious, except perhaps boxed mac and cheese.
Because they were such standard items in our pantry, I hadn’t even bothered to write the sauces on my shopping list. So I was almost frantic when I couldn’t find them. After 15 minutes of searching, I eventually gratefully found a small puckered plastic jar of Sriracha. The canned salsa still eluded me. In its place, I found an entire aisle of pickles. Pickles. I have nothing against pickles, in fact I make my own homemade version, but a whole aisle? How much has my home state changed since I left those two decades ago? Fortunately I eventually found other local markets with a selection of the foods I love, including both my favorite canned salsa and beloved rooster sauce.
There is another item I have missed since leaving behind the sun-baked shores of L.A.: loquats. Loquat season is now over in Los Angeles, and we’ve already eaten our way through the most of the stash of loquat butter I made this past spring from our backyard loquat tree. I didn’t know we’d be moving away from L.A. and the loquat tree in our backyard when I had generously spread my morning toast with loquat butter throughout the summer. I have only a single jar left and am now fiercely hoarding it for the cold winter ahead.
The perfect tomato sandwich
Moving across the country has its share of joys and stresses. One of the joys is that I’m near my parents, and I’m in the foodshed I grew up in. I’ll get to regularly experience the delights of apple butter, homemade sweet pickles and my father’s basement-cured hams. But at times the stresses of this kind of move can seem to overwhelm the joys. And I was near despair as I attempted to make chicken quesadillas for dinner without salsa ranchera. Just at that point, my mother appeared at the door. In her hands was the cure for homesickness: a ripe Mennonite tomato fresh picked from her garden that same day.
We sat at the kitchen table and ate it together. My mother believes a tomato sandwich should consist of a roll, a slice of tomato, a dab of mayo, and a sprinkle of salt. I like mine without any extras, so I slapped the slice of Mennonite tomato, as wide as my hand, onto half a homemade roll straight from my mother’s oven. I bit into the tomato and roll, felt the tangy flesh melt into the springy bread and tasted — for the first time in years — the richness of the earth of the Shenandoah Valley.
And I knew, finally, I was home.
Top photo: Homegrown tomatoes make my new house feel like home. Credit: Susan Lutz