Being sick is not always the worst thing that can happen. In fact, when I was under the weather last week, I stared out the window and contemplated my position in life. My stories were all beginning to sound the same. I had saturated the county with long, involved sentences about people, churches, battles from the Revolution and the never-ending sagas of the Chester County history. I had taken on trees, vigorously describing their foliage and root system, about which I knew nothing.
With this terrible realization of what I had been doing, I grabbed the oxygen, flung myself on the recliner and started the "what to do" or the "what not to do" process. In all honesty, that kind of examination will either stop you in your tracks or set you on a new course.
CNN was telling me every 15 minutes that eating tomatoes was a dangerous thing to do. Those succulent summer gems were on the no-no list because of a nasty little bug with the romantic name of Salmonella, a dirty-hand sickness that was putting seniors in the hospital and young children in mortal danger.
"What to do?" I pondered. Giving up "tamaters" was not even a thought, and it was too late to grow my own in the safety of my backyard. It was then that I talked to a good friend in Rock Hill, and her advice sent me into action.
Friday morning, I hit the floor at 7:15, had a cup of coffee, two doughnuts and the ever-present blood pressure medicine and made my way to Rock Hill -- not to the smart shops or an art center but just where I belonged, the Farmers Market.
I was on an investigative mission, a "stringer" looking for a story and a safe place to buy my summer lunch. There it was, at the municipal parking lot, right on the corner of Black Street and Elizabeth Lane.
"Good morning," I said in my best voice, standing between Tom Hayes' yellow red and green chilies and Sandy Lovern's tailgate loaded with bright purple, pink red and white petunias. "I write a column for The Herald. Would someone like to talk to me about all that you are selling here?"
"You write for the Rock Hill paper?" one older gentleman asked. His hand circled around in the air, indicating that Rock Hill went beyond the parking lot.
"Yes," I answered. "Is there another one somewhere else?"
"No, ma'am, I guess I haven't seen you before." He smiled that gentle smile of seniority, and we understood one another.
"Well," I countered, "If I can get this story written next week, you can read about these gentlemen farmers and what they do toward the business of raising safe food for public consumption."
He smiled, I smiled and I realized that being sick had been a blessing in disguise.
J.B. Wood was the next farmer in line, a white-haired feller with a stunning clipped mustache, a big straw plantation hat and an attitude of Southern gentleness. "I think I know you," I said, in a hesitant manner.
"Sure, you do," he answered with a smile. "I sold Kate that big gas guzzler. Is she is still driving it?"
"So you did," I said, and yes she is. We began to talk vegetables and the fact that four years ago, he had promised to take me to fish for "cats" on that big old river, and he never did. J.B. informed me that it has not been an easy growing season. The ground stayed too cold this spring, and then came that big rush of heat, and the "tamaters" swelled and then dried. We learned this year that tomatoes do it their way, and that in a week or two, they will get themselves together and act as they should.
Tomatoes do not care that the temperature is hanging around 96 degrees. They take their own sweet time developing that flavor we all expect and cherish. Rich, red skin that can be pulled off and present a non-acid flavor that only we understand. We do not, in this sweet place, enjoy or tolerate tomatoes that look beautiful and taste like red cardboard.
Now, to set off the pure historical glory of this humble fruit, get a jar of Dukes, a little salt and pepper, a couple of slices of good white bread, a tall glass of sweet tea and a place to put your feet up and enjoy the eating rights of summer.
As we talked, Margaret Henson, originally of the United Kingdom, came along and said she had been buying from J.B. for the past couple of years. She, too, was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the precious tomato. She talked about living here since 1946, having arrived as a war bride. She has never had a second thought about going back home and has loved it here from the very beginning. She said it was all one part of a gentle existence: the wonderful weather, the perfect summers and the dedication to tomatoes.
Other vegetables are on their way: delicious yellow and white corn; onions that were made famous in Georgia are now grown in sweet South Carolina soil; tomatoes, potatoes and all of the other delights that local farmers offer.
This terrible plague of Salmonella has shaken our faith in the vegetable growers, as it should. It is bacteria that comes from animal waste and is carried through vegetable-to-vegetable contact, contaminated water, dirty hands and a dozen other ways of putting it from one place to another. Cooking will kill the bacteria, and washing the vegetable will help eliminate some but not all of the danger
It is wonderful to think that we are offered food that is never sullied with chemicals nor polluted with hormones and other things that wreak havoc with our natural systems, but bacteria has nothing to do with our hormone levels and our nervous systems. Bacteria make you sick. So feel better when you shop at the local farmers market. The vegetables are watered from deep artesian wells, and the farmer and his helpers wash their hands. Animals do not graze nor live near the growing areas. These people know their reputations ride on the quality not only of the product, but the manner and safety in which it is produced.
So have faith, ye of the "tamater" sandwich crowd -- they are on their way.