In the early 1950s, Guido, a family friend who had just immigrated to Canada, gave my father seeds from an Italian heirloom tomato. My dad planted them in his backyard garden, a patch of land in Toronto’s west end, legendary amongst his friends for its rich healthy soil.
My father also grew other tasty Italian pomodori (tomatoes), including one from his brother’s garden in Italy. His plants were prolific and full of glory. He tied them to old hockey sticks which were the perfect size to support his robust plants. “Your father really knew how to treat a tomato plant,” his old friend, Tullio, told me recently.
Like any good gardener, my father tended to his tomatoes every day, after work and on weekends. He gave away baskets full of his tomatoes to friends and neighbours, who loved them and eventually came to call them Rico’s tomatoes.
Every year, my father would select a couple of really good-looking tomatoes, dry their seeds and store them in his garden shed for the next season. Those lucky tomatoes were coddled and cradled as they grew and ripened. Under his expert care the original heirloom tomato grew into an especially sweet globe with a beautiful balance between flesh and juice, sweetness and acidity, an August treat we all looked forward to. I’ve shared many tomatoes with my father; we would pick one that looked delicious, slice it in half, salt it, and eat it.
About twenty years ago, it almost all came to an end. When the waxing moon of March arrived, signalling the time to start the seeds indoors, they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere. They weren’t in the shed, they weren’t in the house. He had lost his seeds and decades of cultivation.
My dad’s not around anymore but his tomatoes are, thanks to what I like to call the Tomato Trust – generous gardeners across the GTA and beyond, who know what it means to sink your teeth into a flavourful jewel.
The Tomato Trust at work
The Mississauga Admirer saves the day
Word of the missing seeds had arrived in Mississauga where my brother’s in-laws live. A basket of tomatoes had made its way to their dinner table. My brother, Dennis, had a grandmother-in-law, Halmeoni (Korean for grandmother). She had her own backyard garden and a soft spot for good-looking sweet tomatoes. Charmed by my father’s tomatoes, she saved the seeds to plant the following spring in her own garden.
On a visit to the in-laws, my father told the story of the missing seeds. Halmeoni, who only spoke Korean but understood everything, tapped my father on the shoulder and signalled to him to follow her. My 6’3” father followed petite halmeoni into her garden where she gave him a jar of tiny yellow seeds, his seeds. As she handed them over, she tapped his chest with her hand to indicate the seeds were his. “They were so clean, better than store-bought. She really took care of them,” my mother said. Halmeoni saved the day. How happy we all were.
The North York Enthusiast and the cherry tomatoes
Dennis, who now has his own garden and a stash of my father’s seeds, has a friend, Larry, who collects the seeds of tomatoes he’s tasted and loved. He also has some of my father’s seeds, a backup store which helps us sleep better at night.
A good tomato picked right off the plant tastes terrific and it can take any dish from ho-hum and humdrum to Michelin star worthy, which is why tomato lovers, like Dennis and Larry, appreciate the qualities of the plump red ball of summer and love to talk about it. They discuss different varieties, their skin, flesh, colour, shape, scent, taste and use, and in this vein my brother gave Larry a batch of really good cherry tomatoes but not from my father’s trusty patch of soil. He gave Larry what he thought were excellent tomatoes from the garden of his neighbour’s father. Good tomatoes get around. That gardener passed away ten years ago and the sweet taste of his cherry tomatoes faded away.
But Larry loved those little beauties. He had saved the seeds and has been planting them and eating the ruby reds ever since. This summer, he gave some to Dennis with a reminder that the seeds came from the cherry tomatoes he had given him a decade earlier.
Seizing the significance, my brother passed them along to his neighbour. These tomatoes were going to go full circle. “Try these,” he said. She thought they tasted really good and when she learned they were grown from her father’s tomatoes, they tasted even better.
My mother can’t help but fret over the tomatoes carrying next year’s seeds, having experienced the precariousness of their existence first hand. They carry with them six decades of my father’s passion for the pomodoro. “Don’t pick those two tomatoes!” she warns every time I go into the garden looking for a beautiful orb. “I know, I know,” I say, glancing at the pampered pomodori.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello
Rico’s tomatoes have continued to spread farther than he ever knew. Years ago I received a few of those delicious tomatoes, and I too saved seeds so I could grow them myself. The first year they were a little disappointing compared to Elizabeth’s father’s, but I tried again and in subsequent years they were as tasty as the originals.
For the past two years I have started many more seedlings than my planter boxes can accommodate. Some have been thriving in Bilton Laneway, a tiny pocket of public space being cleaned up by its neighbours and turned into a community social spot and garden. Rico’s tomatoes are giving those apartment dwellers a true taste of the pleasures of home grown.
From Bilton Laneway the tomatoes have migrated to other gardens. Skai Leja has come by to help out in the laneway garden and gone home with some extra seedlings for her downtown garden, and has saved the seeds herself for next year. They have even made their way to a farm in Caledon, where traditions meet as Rico’s pomodori grow beside an 1872 Ontario stone farmhouse.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin and Suzanne Long
SEED: The Untold Story will be screened by Planet in Focus on Saturday, October 22, 2016 at 5:00 PM at AGO, Jackman Hall.
“The film begins with a shocking statistic: Over the course of the 20th century, some 94% of the world’s vegetable seed varieties have become extinct. Driving this disappearance was the advent of hybrid seeds, engineered by biotech firms specifically to discourage farmers from storing and replanting organic seeds. Today, corporate giants like Monsanto enjoy a near-monopoly on seed production, and the resulting lack of biodiversity means climate change could have catastrophic effects on global food supplies. But, thanks to the efforts of independent farmers, indigenous seed keepers, and open-source seed banks, hope for rehabilitation of endangered seed stocks remains. Winner of the award for best environmental film at Sheffield Doc/Fest, SEED is a stirring dispatch from the front lines of the David and Goliath battle to protect our agricultural heritage.”
I love the story of Elizabeth ‘s fathers tomatoes! It’s him & people like him, with
a keen sense of family history and excellence who keep check of our very most precious things. Such care and passion for excellence to pass down through the family. Bravo!
Susan O’Neill, Toronto