October Tomatoes in Leather Britches

Nothing tastes better than an October tomato. From the late season tangle of a retired corner of the garden, propped up on the fading purple of a stand of opal basil going to seed, the last tomato plants of the year glow in unexpected viridescence.

These are the late bloomers. They were planted at the same time as their neighbors, but took their time and slowly put down deep roots, overlooked and forgotten while everyone else grabbed the headlines over the summer. Now the rest of their clan have withered, and they shake off the cold nights to make new blooms and the sweetest fruit of the year. As the old wisdom maintains, it’s not how well you start, but how well you finish.

Yesterday we gathered the seed beans from the garden, the rugged outdoor descendants of the strands of “leather britches” my grandmother and her peers would string together and hang in the attic. The rehydrated beans cooked with a bit of pork were an open secret for generations, only recently rediscovered by haute cuisine.

A feeling of satisfaction always rewards the effort to preserve for another year the seed which has been in the family for generations. The weather was an ally this year, with a perfectly timed dry spell which wrapped the beans in a tight, leathery protective coat. We will have seed to share this year to keep alive the heirloom tradition stretching back to the 1840’s and beyond.

It takes time to gather the beans. It’s not that the work is hard or complicated, but a bright October sky on a cool morning with the warm sun on my back leaves me standing still and gazing at the mountain, just as I remember my grandparents doing.

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