Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — The Hopeful Gardener

Seedlings under lights.

Seeds saved from the best plants.

Waiting, waiting,

For soil to dry,

For the season’s final frost.

Waiting, waiting,

Until the soil can be worked,

The rich, humousy smell.

Waiting, waiting,

For peas, spinach, and lettuce,

Then sweet and spicy peppers,

Beefsteak tomatoes for sandwiches,

And Romas for sauce,

Eggplant and zucchini coming out your ears.

Waiting, waiting,

For the color of annuals.

Morning glories climbing strings,

Petunias, marigolds, salvia, and zinnias.

All the colors of the rainbow,

The pungent smell of fresh mulch.

Waiting, waiting,

For the hopes of spring planting

To become the fruit of summer.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Tomatoes


(c) Robert C. Trube, 2016

Backyard gardens were a commonplace in working class Youngstown. In the Depression-era and in strike times, they were an essential for feeding the family, and a help with the grocery budget at other times. And one of the staples of the backyard garden was the tomato patch.

I’m thinking of this because my tomatoes are just coming ripe right now (I know there is someone out there who probably has beaten me by several weeks!). There was nothing to compare to tomatoes fresh off the vine. Big Boys and Beefsteaks were the perfect thing for tomato sandwiches. My dad used to toast some bread, slice up tomatoes along with thinly sliced onions, and a bit of pepper and it was heaven between two slices of bread.

There were so many different ways you could use tomatoes fresh off the vine. A juicy tomato slice made hamburgers off the grill even better. Cut up in wedges with cucumbers, onions, and some oil and vinegar, with a bit of salt and pepper, and maybe some sugar and chilled, they made for great salads on a hot summer day when you weren’t too hungry. Cherry tomatoes were a great addition to lettuce salads with their candy-like bursts of flavor when you bit into one. Green tomatoes could be fried up, especially at the end of the season when you were cleaning off the vines before the first frost. Here’s a website with lots of recipes for fried green tomatoes.

Not everyone did it, but you usually had someone in the neighborhood that gardened in a big way and not only grew tomatoes to eat fresh but also to can to make sauces for spaghetti and other pasta dishes. In this case the plum or Roma tomatoes were the favorite tomato because they were thick and meaty, great for sauces. This is probably why the sauces were so good. I had friends whose basements were lined with shelves of sauce and other things their moms had “put up” for the winter.

The tough thing about growing your own tomatoes is you discovered how tasteless the store-bought ones were, or most of those served in restaurants. These breeds were developed when tomatoes started being shipped long distance and they were bred for firmness so that they would have minimal damage in shipping. Perhaps one of the good things about the movement toward locally grown food is that we are getting back to food that is probably healthier and tastes far better.

When those first tomatoes came, mid-July or so, you couldn’t wait to eat them. By mid-August, if you had a garden of any size you were overwhelmed and were giving them away to anyone who would take them–along with zucchini, peppers, and other vegetables. Then you reached the tail end of the season where you started treasuring anything that came out of the garden and storing partially ripe tomatoes in a cold place in the basement to see how far into the autumn you could extend your harvest. And if you had a particularly tasty tomato that wasn’t a hybrid, you saved the seeds for next year’s garden.

I’d love to hear about your favorite ways to use all those tomatoes out of the garden. And talking about all this has made me hungry for a tomato sandwich. I think I might just make me one!


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Gardening

Backyard Garden (c)Robert C Trube

Backyard Garden (c)Robert C Trube

With warmer days approaching and spring cleanup done, we’re starting to think about gardening. Gardening was big in our neighborhood on the west side of Youngstown. As a kid, we’d always get yelled at when we cut through a neighbor’s garden or hit a baseball into our back neighbor’s yard.

Cool season crops would already be in–peas, lettuce, spinach, beets, and onions among them. In fact garlic would have been planted by many the previous fall–we had an old neighbor who used to say garlic was like a pregnant lady–he’d always plant it nine months ahead.

Warm weather crops were usually not planted until around Memorial Day when we were growing up. I wonder with warmer temperatures if people are planting earlier these days. You could try to push the season a few weeks and cover things if frost threatened, but the tomatoes and peppers, beans, cucumbers and zucchini really didn’t take off until it got hot anyhow. Some neighbors planted lots of tomatoes, particularly the Roma tomatoes, because they wanted to can them for sauce. There would be bell-peppers for stuffing and hot peppers for spicing things up and banana peppers to cut up into salads.

I’ve always loved the rich, humus-y smell of the soil when you first turned it over in the spring. You knew it was healthy if you saw a lot of worms. There was the excitement of seeing lettuce and other plants come up from seed, the stalks of the onion sets coming up. There was a wonder when bare rows marked out in the garden would suddenly have plants growing up. Of course then you had to put up chicken wire to keep the rabbits from eating it all up.

Later, you would set out tomato plants with stakes or cages and watch them take off when it got warm. Then you spotted the first yellow flowers that signaled that there would soon be little tomatoes. Similarly with your peppers, beans and zucchini. By July, you reached that point where everything was lush and growing like crazy and you started getting food.

It seems like, other than the spring crops, zucchini was always first and pretty soon, everyone was either baking zucchini bread or trying to get rid of excess zucchini. You had to do something with zucchini–fry it or bake it up in bread. You also had to keep up with picking it unless you wanted zucchini the size of baseball bats, which usually wasn’t as good for eating.

One of our favorite summer lunches was to toast some bread, slice up a tomato, put a little pepper on it, maybe a slice of cheese, maybe a slice of onion, and enjoy. Simple, fresh and tasty.

I suspect the penchant Youngstowners have for gardening might have come out of the depression and the Victory gardens of World War II. Back in the day, people might have even just saved seed from the year before or started plants from seed under lights in the basement. It was an inexpensive way to supplement the groceries during those lean years when you were trying to make ends meet. What is ironic is that it was probably far healthier than our store-bought food today. The rise of farmers markets and organic food sections or whole stores suggests to me we are trying to get back to that.

But life was simpler then. You worked, and then you came home and planted a garden and tended it. Older neighbors or family passed garden lore down to younger ones. And you had the joy of eating food you’d grown, the rich freshness of something just picked. Or months later, the rich sauces and pickled cucumbers and peppers that made so many dishes just that much better!

What are your garden memories?

This and other Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown can be found by clicking “On Youngstown” on the menu bar on any page of the blog.

What Will You Be Doing This Weekend?

If you are in Columbus in mid-May, you will probably be doing one of the following:

1. Mowing the lawn. In May, it seems you need to do this once every five days. The cycle is like this: Day One: Cut the grass, Day Two: Watch it rain, Day Three: Watch the grass grow, Day Four: Debate cutting the grass but delay due to rain, Day Five: Cut the grass. Then repeat the cycle!

2. Fertilize the lawn. That seems a bit crazy in light of item 1, but Columbus people are crazy about their lawns. No wonder Scott’s Company is located in nearby Marysville!

3. Finish planting your flowers and vegetables. The early birds did all this two weeks ago and are at the garden centers looking for bargains. Worst case: you are going to the garden center for the first time and hoping you are not left with leggy, pathetic plants.

4. If you are done with all that you are probably mulching the beds, preparing to keep them moist on those hot summer days soon to come.

5. Then there are all those bushes and trees that have been growing like crazy–or things like our double knock out roses that suffered from this winter and need cutting back to live wood.

This is the month when it is wonderful to work in the yard. The summer heat of June hopefully has not yet arrived. But the cold, rainy days of April are mostly past.

So what do you do if you don’t have a yard? You can sip a cool drink and watch all those hard working people. Or you can indulge in one of those other favorite activities of people in the C-bus, enjoy a round of golf or go shopping. (For the sports-minded, both the Crew and the Clippers are away this weekend.) Of course there are other alternatives–a trip to one of our wonderful Metro Parks, a visit to an art gallery, or my favorite activity, rain or shine, a trip to your favorite bookstore!

Have a great weekend!

[Disclaimer: None of the above should be construed as professional gardening advice!]