The recent streak of hot weather may have been hard on humans, but the tomatoes probably enjoyed it. Tomatoes like rotten, hot weather. They are especially fond of hot nights. On the nights when humans are squirming and complaining, tomatoes are busy setting fruit and doing all the other plant-type activities that lead to more tomatoes.
I learned this hot-time-in-the-old- tomato-patch-tonight theory several years ago. I got it from an occasionally reliable source, a tomato night-life pamphlet given away at a garden center. I have since lost the pamphlet, but I remember its essential points.
All the commotion starts when the nocturnal temperature hits 80 degrees, or maybe it was 70 degrees. Anyway, once it gets hot at night, the tomato plant gets active. It produces yellow blossoms, which turn into green tomatoes. These eventually turn into ripe tomatoes. And these tomatoes turn into bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, one of the greatest foods on earth.
I confirmed findings on tomato behavior, sorta, in an telephone interview with Pam Pahl. She, along with her husband, Les, grow tomatoes, lots of them, on their family farm in western Baltimore County. They sell their tomatoes, along with corn, beans and other vegetables at various farmers markets in Baltimore and Howard counties.
When I called the Pahls, Les was headed out the door on his way to Frederick to get spare parts for a tractor. But Pam had a little time to explain how their crops had weathered the recent series of 100-degree days.
She was worried about the sweet corn. Corn, she explained, needs a lot of water. She and her husband had been irrigating their crops with water drawn from the three ponds on their farms. But one pond was already dry. Rain was needed both to quench the corn crop and to fill up the ponds, she said.
Tomatoes, however, were a different story. Mature tomato plants take to the heat. We did not discuss the particulars of the tomato's late-night activities. But it was agreed that once a tomato has set down roots, it likes it hot.
Finally I tested my hot tomato theory by spending several days on the Eastern Shore, eating lots of home-grown tomatoes.
Long ago I learned that the Eastern Shore is the cutting edge. The folks in the communities on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay may not be the first to have their body parts pieced or their chests shaved. But they always have the first good tomatoes of the season. Moreover, when it comes to the appearance of sweet corn and melons, Eastern Shore farmers are days ahead of farmers in other parts of the state. That is because the Eastern Shore is hotter longer. No doubt about it, agriculturally speaking, the Eastern Shore is avant garde.
The corn, for example, that I ate on Eastern Shore was white and sweet. The watermelon was dark red and sweeter. But the local dish that sent me reeling with delight was the tomato.
It was red all the way through and had that unmistakable flavor and free-ranging juice of a tomato that only recently had been removed from a happy life in a sunny field.
I knew there were lots of intriguing things I could do with such fresh tomatoes.
I could, for instance, bake them and stuff them with a mousse made of fava beans. Or I could sprinkle olive oil and mint leaves on them and bake them in pan filled with water. I found these tomato treatments in a new book, "The Great Book of Vegetables" by Antonella Palazzi (Simon & Schuster, $40).
They looked appealing, but I hungered for more direct forms of tomato pleasure.
So I put slices of the fresh tomato on bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Sometimes I just ate the tomatoes whole.
I carried a few of the prized Eastern Shore tomatoes back with me to Baltimore. But they were quickly dispatched. I had one of the last ones for lunch. I bolted from the office in the middle of the day, drove home and swept it off the kitchen counter.
Once the Eastern Shore tomatoes were gone, I checked on the crop on the western side of the Bay Bridge.
I was delighted to hear Pam Pahl say that, thanks in part to the hot weather, the tomato crop was beginning to come in. That meant real tomatoes would soon be in the various farmers markets.
And one evening I visited the tomato plants in my small garden. And I gave them a little water, and pulled some weeds around them.
But once it started to get dark, I left them alone.