Tomato Legacy

My grandfather's garden was a strip of ground along the fence on each side of his yard, maybe 2 feet wide and 15 feet long each. It was a tiny yard just barely outside Cleveland, Ohio city limits. But from this tiny amount of land he coaxed tomatoes, cucumbers and various other produce that for me, was the taste of summer. This magical place also contained a giant, graceful cherry tree bifurcated only about 2 feet off the ground, perfect for a little kid to climb into and daydream, whose fruit found its way into the fantastic wine he made, a process he had down to a science in a mystical bubbling lab in the basement of the little house.

He made his own sausage, and cooked old world food. I recall taking my then husband to his house one day. Grandpa, a machinist, had rigged up a sausage grinder to a machine he'd made to automate the process of making sausage, because the meat was on sale. My husband was amazed. John Soldacki knew how to enjoy fine things in life because of his own skill, not because he was a rich man.

I recall him proudly showing his garden to a family friend, asking if he'd like some "Polish tomatoes." The friend joked, "What are those, the seeds on the outside?" Not exactly. This was an open-pollinated, potato-leaf, indeterminate variety whose seeds his mother had brought over from Krakow, Poland, and showed him how to raise, and propagate. They are huge (up to a pound), meaty, pink -- in my mind, the ultimate sandwich and hamburger tomato. And always grown organically.

Much later, when I was a teenager, he brought over a book, 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden by Carolyn J. Male. Apparently he'd been talking garden shop with someone who was a seed saver, and shared some seeds of his Polish tomatoes with them. I don't know the tale of the intervening journey they made, but apparently a coworker gave them to Carolyn, and then they found their way to Seed Savers Exchange. There on a full page of her book was a big picture of his humble "Soldacki" tomatoes (they are not pretty... they're lumpy and huge and prone to cracking but they are SO good). It was a signed copy.

This was the first time I'd heard of "heirloom" tomatoes, and I thought it was weird. It wasn't until more years later, when I had a piece of land I could actually call my own, that I got interested in gardening, and feeding myself, and I now prefer heirloom varieties over any others. At the time, Grandpa was 85 and in poor health. He had had someone coming over to help him plant his tomatoes but he got anxious and decided to start by himself, then fell on the concrete and broke his hip. His health took continual downturns from there.

Mom gave him regular updates on my gardening efforts (and of course I was growing Soldacki tomatoes). He was pretty excited to have someone actually in the family growing and saving his seeds. Last year she told me he was doing quite poorly so I made the trip back to Cleveland mainly to see him. I got him on a good day and he was in great spirits, and I was pretty excited to be able to talk gardening with him... for me it was like going to see the guru on the mountain, so I still laugh when I think about asking him questions and his sage answers: "Sure, try it... get a book!"

It's been just about a year since we lost him. I am fairly sure this time of year I will always, always be thinking of him, and of the skills he possessed that are lost to subsequent generations, who so often depend on food that comes out of a box, a bag, or a window. It is such a loss not to know what it means to feed yourself out of the green earth, to sit down to a meal that is made of things that are real and a part of you... the work of your hands.

I hope that, like me, my son will ultimately decide that he should be a gardener, when he has a home and a family of his own. Whether he does or not I am so very thankful that my grandfather's seeds have found their way into the hands of people interested in preserving pieces of family heritage like the Soldacki tomato. And for my part, it's my hope to rediscover some of the lost skills of previous generations, and perhaps to have some part in helping the generations after me to do the same.

If you'd like to try growing Soldacki tomatoes, you can get them at Seed Savers Exchange.