The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander. Algonquin Books, 2006, $22.95, 288 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
William Alexander had a simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his back yard. It was a dream that would lead to life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, and weeds; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer); the near electrocution of the tree man; and the pity of his wife and children. When Alexander decided to run a cost-benefit analysis, adding up everything from the Havahart animal trap ($60) to the Velcro tomato wraps ($5) to the steel edging ($1,200), then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it came as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each tomato.
A gardener with an existential bent, Alexander gives excellent advice about everything from peaches to leeks, while tackling such questions as What do our gardens tell us about ourselves? Do we get the gardens we deserve? And Why does the groundhog have to take one bite from half a dozen tomatoes when any gardener would gladly grant him six bites of just one?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly : When the author of this hilarious horticultural memoir plants a large vegetable garden and a small orchard on his Hudson Valley farmstead, he finds himself at odds with almost all creation. At the top of the food chain are the landscaping contractors, always behind schedule, frequently derelict, occasionally menacing. Then there are the herds of deer that batter the electrified fence to get at Alexander's crop, and the groundhog who simply squeezes between the wires, apparently savoring the 10,000-volt shocks. Most insidious are the armies of beetles, worms, maggots, and grubs that provoke Alexander, initially an organic-produce zealot, into drenching his entire property with pesticides. He braves these trials, along with hours of backbreaking labor and the eye-rolling of his wife and children, for the succulence of homegrown food. He also manages to maintain a sense of humor, riffing on everything from the ugliness of garden ornaments to the politics of giving away vegetables to friends. Alexander's slightly poisoned paradise manages to impart an existential lesson on the interconnectedness of nature and the fine line between nurturing and killing.
Booklist : It began innocently enough. Now that Alexander and his formerly city-dwelling family had a little bit of suburban property, why not plant some vegetables and put in a few fruit trees? After all, any costs involved would be more than offset by the joys of slicing fresh peaches on his morning cereal or drizzling virgin olive oil over juicy beefsteak tomatoes from his own plants, right? Not exactly. Recounting all of the things that could, and did, go wrong, from abandoned tractors to marauding groundhogs, and menacing handymen to ravaging beetles, Alexander wryly reveals how his well-intentioned experiment in back-yard agriculture ended up being a lot more frustrating, not to mention expensive, than he envisioned. In this appealingly witty memoir of one man's battle with nature, Alexander weaves a cautionary tale for those who have ever tasted a grocery-store tomato and vowed to grow a better one in their own back yard.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
William Alexander has been gardening and small-scale farming for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and their two children in New York's Hudson Valley.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"You've had a busy year with this book." "It was my first book. I was 53 when it came out, and I thought maybe my family would buy a few copies and that would be it, but it's taken off. We're very pleased. I've just been invited to the National Book Fair on the Capital Mall, so I'm having breakfast with Laura Bush."
"Congratulations, I think."
"Yeah, I'm not so sure. I'm trying to keep art separate from politics."
"Did you grow up around gardens and gardening?"
"We had a very small house. I mean, the plot was maybe a tenth of an acre, but my dad always had a garden. Tomatoes, of course, were his main thing. He was a guidance counselor for the school system. I remember him not being satisfied with the tomato seedlings he could buy at the garden center, so he and a teacher would put in an order for seeds and share it. When you get a packet of seeds, you only need about nine of them.
"Unfortunately, as a kid, I couldn't have been less interested in the garden. I paid no attention whatsoever. I can't tell you how many times I've rued that fact. I could have used a lot of help when I started to garden on my own."
"Where was that first garden?"
"On St. Thomas. It was my first time being far from home. I think the garden was a way of putting down my roots -- no pun intended. It set the scene for why I still garden today. Even on St. Thomas you couldn't get decent fresh food. Half the time, the vegetables you found you didn't want to eat. It was shocking to me."
"Did you call your dad for advice?"
"You know, I don't remember doing that. In 1978, you didn't call anyone from the Virgin Islands. I may have written some letters."
"When you've been asked to give advice to gardeners, you always say, 'start small.' It sounds to me like you learned that lesson the hard way. Why did you begin with such a large garden?"
"Now, I do tell people to keep in mind that the garden you build today is the garden that you have to tend tomorrow, but we didn't think about that at first.
"I think where we really got into trouble is once we realized this plot of land was ours, we spent a full two years just staring at it, trying to figure out what to do. During those two years we gave each other garden books. These beautiful, large, glossy garden books with titles like, Monet's Garden , Giverny , and Great Victorian Gardens . What we failed to recognize, of course, was the fact that one of the things that made great Victorian gardens great is they came with great Victorian gardeners.
"I can take people into my back yard, to a spot down by the pool, where I have what looks like a field of creeping thyme. If you were to dig under it you would find there's actually a patio there. I can see the book as clear as day, even though it must be ten years ago, where we saw this wonderful patio with creeping thyme in the cracks. What I didn't realize -- what they didn't tell you in the book -- was that they must have had a gardener coming in every single week cutting that thyme back, because it grows like a weed. In no time at all, I lost the slate I had put in, and the patio was completely overwhelmed.
"So, we didn't realize what we were getting ourselves into. And we were very romantic about it.
"Yet, even with my bad neck now and with tendonitis in both elbows, there is something about being in touch with the earth and being part of that harvest tradition.
"I was doing an AARP interview the other day. They have no sense of humor over there. But they asked me 'What advice would you have for aging gardeners?' No, they don't use the word 'aging,' they said 'mature' gardeners. Anyway, I said, 'Don't plant anything that's growing tall faster than you're growing shorter.' They refused to print it!"
"Are you going to be canning peaches again this year?"
"That's a good question. We didn't last year. I've been more attentive to thinning out, trying to keep the number of peaches down. We had said we would never can again. But to show you what a sucker I still am, I was just reading in Cook's Illustrated that there's a new serrated peach peeler out.
"The hardest part of canning is peeling the damn peaches. You dip them in boiling water, but then you've got that steam -- it's messy, and gloppy. But, I said to my wife, 'Wow, if there's a new peach peeler that can make peeling easier, maybe we will can peaches after all.' She just kind of shrugged, and said 'Sure.'"
"Can you walk me through the process you use?"
"First, you have all these wicker baskets full of peaches.
"You have to sterilize the jars. We have a new dishwasher which claims to have a sterile cycle on it; we've just been trusting that it really is. That makes things a little easier. You still have to do the tops and the rings and so on.
"I dip the peaches in the boiling water for a bit and then draw two full circles, from north pole to south pole, around the peach with a sharp paring knife, and peel off the skin. Then, you have to slice them. Our peaches are not freestone, so you have to kind of fiddle with the stone in the middle.
"Then, you jam the peaches into the jars and fill them with the syrup just to the top, but not quite to the top, and wipe the rim clean. I find it nerve-wracking because I'm always convinced that I'm going to poison us. I never have that sense that I'm really doing it right because no one has ever shown me how. I just learned from books."
"Do you have one of those old blue and white speckled canners to process them in?"
"We sure do. We don't have one of the newer steam ones, we have the old enamel kind."
"How do you avoid mushy canned peaches? About every three years I get it right and the other two years they're mealy or mushy when I'm finished canning them."
"Well, it seems that the slightly underripe ones, or just barely ripe, can the best. But the flip side of that, maybe this is where the peeler will come in, is that they are impossible to peel."
"Between now and the big harvest, you're going on vacation?"
"We're leaving the house for a week and, to be honest, the garden is the reason why we're leaving for such a short time.
"One year we went to Spain, and actually went in June, figuring that was safe. When we came back, my positive and negative electric wires had twisted in a windstorm and had shorted out, and the garden was bare. The deer had eaten everything to the ground.
"Now we feel like anything beyond a week away isn't safe. This is admittedly insane. I'll be the first person to say that. I'm kind of living in this prison like one of the groundhogs that I've trapped."
"If you could go back to the beginning, ten years ago, I know there are many things you would do differently, but what would you make sure you did exactly the same?"
"Grow the foods that you love and can't get fresh. Heirloom tomatoes, obviously, are number one on that list for me. Not only is any back-yard tomato better than any supermarket tomato, but an heirloom is better than most things you're going to get at a farm stand, unless you're very lucky.
"A couple of years ago I grew Red Sun shallots for the first time. I figured these kinds of root vegetables were probably going to be pretty much like what you get in the store, but I was just amazed when I cooked with them for the first time. They've actually changed the way that I cook. We do a lot of bistro cooking now. We'll just sauté meat, fish, or chicken and then cook those shallots for 20 seconds in a little butter, deglaze the pan, grab what herbs are in the garden, and we have a meal."
"Were you a cook before you were a gardener?"
"I got married fairly late, so I was a bachelor living on my own for a long time. I did learn to cook. But I think I've become a better cook and a more adventurous cook since I've had the garden. I do sometimes wonder, though, if I have a garden because I cook or if I cook because I have a garden. And I'm not always sure of the answer to that."
"Do you think your kids will plant gardens when they're adults?"
"I'd say my son, not a chance. Katy? Maybe. Katy is really into food. She's very much her father's daughter. It's so hard to predict, because if someone had asked my dad 30 years ago, he would have said there's no way that kid is ever even going to own a house, let alone raise a garden."