Thursday, June 03, 2004

Neighbor Beater Tomatoes

Now, I just don't know how folks are where you might be from, but in Beloved, Kentucky, folks are serious about their tomatoes. Tomatoes, or tomaters or just plain ol' 'maters they may be, but raisin' them wonderful red fruits is a passion in Beloved.

Uncle Billy Gilbert always worked hard to try to be the first to have ripe tomatoes. He would start seeds inside with mason jars over the seedlin's. Them seedlin's would be transplanted out to cold frames as soon as the weather got passable and then into a garden when chance of frost passed.

Other folks had theories, secrets and special seeds saved from one year to the next. No one talked much about how they did it...if they won.

Whichever lucky citizen was the first with a ripe tomatoe would show up with the lovely fruit in downtown Beloved with a smile and the prize to be shown off to all who would stop to look.

In Beloved word would get 'round and everyone would stop to look.

Cousin Peanut tried year after year to be the first with a "mater" but his tendency to forget his garden made him an unlikely candidate for the glory that would be heaped upon the victor. Folks felt bad every year when Cousin Peanut would show up to see the winning tomatoe. He would stand and stare for the longest time. Sister Hazel Budder, the preacher's wife and Cousin Peanut's sister knew when he left he would shed a quiet tear. Cousin Peanut was almost always an "also ran" in about anything he ever tried.

'Cept that one year.

Folks started early with their seedlin's under glass as usual. Uncle Billy Gilbert actually showed Cousin Peanut how to start a little ol' "mason jar greenhouse". Cousin Peanut put out his seedlin's ahead of a lot of folks. Then promptly went back to his old ways of not tendin' the garden much. His Daddy, Vergie was bad sick and his Mama, Mz. Chappell wasn't much better.

That was why Uncle Billy called a nephew of his that worked at the agricultural school at University of Kentucky. He told that nephew, Johnny Gilbert, what he wanted to do...asked if they was tomatoes growin' in the greenhouse and if Johnny would help. Of course Johnny said yes and the famous "Mater Caper" was hatched.

A few nights later Johnny showed up in Beloved. After dark him and Uncle Billy snuck over to Booger Holler where the Chappells lived, dug up Peanut's sorry ol' scraggly tomatoe vines and replaced them with beautiful vines laden with little green fruit.

Cousin Peanut made a haphazard inspection of the garden a day or two later on his way to the little ol' shack out back an' was amazed that his vines were covered with baby tomatoes! He went everywhere braggin' about them little green marbles!

Then promptly forgot them again.

A week or so later, Johnny made another trip and took a secret ride with Uncle Billy over to Booger Holler. Tomatoe vines were traded and transplanted again. Cousin Peanut found that his vines had grown and his tomatoe crop was even better. My oh my how that boy did crow! Even though Vergie couldn't get out to the garden, Cousin Peanut told him about every little tomater! As Vergie an' Mz. Chappell sat in the house together, they would smile and beam at the sudden success of their wayward boy.

The secret gardening trips continued for weeks.

Then Vergie got the pneumonia and Peanut forgot about his tomatoe plants. Vergie didn't last long before he gave it up an' died. He was to be buried in the Chappell graveyard up on the mountain under a sycamore tree overlookin' the little farm he loved.

When Uncle Billy heard that Vergie had died he drove his truck over to the Peabody Post Office an' called Johnny. The night before the funeral Johnny an' Uncle Billy made one more night time raid on Cousin Peanut's garden.

The funeral was held at Booger Holler Holiness Church. Brother Woodrow Budder preached a funeral sermon to beat the band. Folks expected no less, seein' as how Vergie was Brother Woodrow's Daddy-in-Law.

Vergie's casket was carried up the side of the mountain by six strong mountain men. The crowd stood quiet like as final prayers were said and Vergie's boy Chester read the 23rd Psalm. It was a lovely service and the day was glorious up on that hillside. The sun warmed the bodies if not the hearts of the folks gathered to say goodbye one last time.

As folks walked together down the hill they visited and talked quietly. When they got to the bottom of the hill each an' every man jack of 'em stopped an' didn't go another step.

Finally, the Chappell family came down. Mz. Chappell was holdin' on to a couple of her youngin's an' a snifflin' an' such. She was the first to walk through the crowd. She asked what everyone was a doin'. They all pointed to Cousin Peanut's weedy ol' garden patch.

"Peanut, come here, son." Mz. Chappell called.

Peanut made his way through the crowd and looked into his garden. There in the weeds was one beautiful tomatoe vine, curled perfectly around itself an' up a wood stake.

Hangin' from that vine was not one, but two beautiful, perfectly round, red-ripe tomatoes. Peanut reverently picked each and held them in the air for all to see. The crowd sighed "aaahhh" in unison as Cousin Peanut grinned. Everyone knew what this meant. Cousin Peanut had not just the first, but the first AND second ripe tomatoe in Beloved. He had braggin' rights for a year!

Folks offered right then and there to take Peanut to town. Someone found a basket full of biscuits in their car and emptied out the biscuits so Cousin Peanut would have a proper way to display his prize.

Folks left quickly, followin' the truck that carried the champion an' his fruits to the braggin' bench in downtown Beloved. Uncle Billy helped Mz. Chappell an' some of the ladies of the church carry in the bowls of food that friends an' family would gather to eat later.

As he went out for a big ol' bowl of potatoe salad, Mz. Chappell followed him out.

"They ain't no more, Mz. Chappell. This here is the rest of it." Uncle Billy said.

"I ain't here for carryin' no food. I know what you did."

Uncle Billy looked up the mountain, "I don't reckon I know what you are talkin' about."

"We both do. I seen you an' your nephew in that garden late at night more than once. Do you think it is right, Billy? It is cheatin', after all." she said quietly.

Uncle Billy grinned a little, "Nah, ain't no more cheatin' than all the other tricks we all try. They came out of his garden an' he ain't the one that claimed they was the first. I don't believe the good Lord is gonna bar the door or pull the latch string in from Heaven's gate for this one."

Mz. Chappell smiled, snickered and slapped Uncle Billy, "I almost shot you'uns the first time I seen you out there."

"Wouldn't 'a been the first time I was shot at." he said with his orneriest grin.

Cousin Peanut sat on that bench for days showin' off them tomatoes. No one ever knew how good they tasted. He left 'em in that basket till they was right rotten.

His picture ran in the Manchester Enterprise.

Funny thing was, when Cousin Peanut talks about that year, it ain't never the year his Daddy died. It is always the year he had the first tomatoes.

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