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!