Scott D. Parker
A tomato is not a book.
A shocker, I know. We all know what a tomato is and we all know what a book is, but, for the sake of this essay, I wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Last weekend, at a local nursery, I attended my first tomato contest. My wife is the gardener in the family and she takes great pride in its care, what things grow in it, and the overall look of this little piece of earth in our backyard. My role is typically in the tilling stage early in the year: clear out the dead stuff from the previous year, crack the hardened earth, and make the ground ready for the new crop.
This year, our garden produced the largest tomato she has ever grown. Excited, she took it and a couple cherry tomatoes up to the nursery where, with a dozen or so other contestants, the various tomatoes were graded on both size and taste. The rewards were pretty good: $100 gift cards. Two judges, a man and a woman, held court in one of the interior, air-conditioned decorating rooms, surrounded by artificial plants, an odd thing at a nursery. Bottles of water were made available to the contestants and patrons and a few chairs were arranged in front of the judging table. My wife sat next to an elderly couple and across the aisle from a middle-aged couple and a family of three. I stood and observed while my son—although one to enjoy digging in the dirt and, on occasion, helping his mom in the garden—entertained himself on my iPod Touch.
The weighing portion of the judgment was first. My wife’s tomato, a Cherokee Purple for all you vegetologists out there, was among a dozen or so vying for the Largest Tomato prize. One thing was obvious from that group: there was a clear winner, and it wasn't my wife’s Cherokee Purple. There was one other that looked close, but this one, large, misshapened tomato was going to carry the day.
Each tomato, the large ones and the other ones up for Best Tasting, was placed on a Styrofoam plate with a number. Under each plate, taped to the underside, was the contestant name. As the judges brought forth the knife and began slicing (the romas were first), the two of them spoke in hushed undertones. I was only five feet away and I could barely hear them. Very soon, the air was filled with the meaty, earthy smell of tomatoes. It was not an altogether unpleasant experience, that smell. I may not be a gardener, but I do appreciate the sweet smell of the earth and the things produced by it. All the while, soft murmuring conversations were taking place. The folks talked methods of growing, types of food given to the tomato plants. As our election season hits the warm months of summer ahead of the fall campaign, with heated words already starting to fly, the contestants all were congenial and kind to each other. After a bit, we started talking about fishing off the coast near Palacios, Texas. With the growing odor of tomatoes in the air, I quickly started thinking how good tomatoes would go with red fish. Shoot, I'm already thinking about a weekend trip down there. Been wanting to get some fishing done since the end of this season of "River Monsters."
Before the winners were announced, an honorable mention was awarded to a young lad of five. His entry nearly won the tasting contest, and he was quite pleased with his certificate of merit. That, and the extra tomatoes he inhaled after the contest. I asked him his secret: fish heads in the soil. Yes, really. When I disclosed this to my wife, she nodded. She knew, of course, having purchased the vile, oily liquid variety. I never knew you could actually bury a fish head.
During the time at the nursery, a strange thought occurred to me: these growers, unlike us authors, basically had very little to do with the end result of the thing by which they were being judged. Sure, there are different methods of feeding the vines, tending the leaves, and helping Mother Nature out, but, in the end, it is she that does all the work. In recent days, lists of nominations for various mystery awards have been released and all of those authors have been happy to be nominated. Each one wants to win because, in some part, the award will be the reward for the long hours of imagineering, writing, editing, proofing, and selling the fruit of their labors. While you might make the analogy that writers are gardeners of the imagination, they are not only the gardener but also the Mother Nature of a book. They control every aspect of a book, for the most part, and, as such, have much more invested in the outcome.
Once the winners earned their awards and had their pictures taken, we all got to sample the winning tomato and the others on the table. Of all the flavors of summer, fresh tomatoes are among my favorites. It was a very pleasant way to spend a part of a Saturday morning in June, and it proved just a small insight to a different type of competition: one in which Mother Nature was being judged more so that mere humans.