Ode on a Green Tomato

(A play on Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)

by Bonnie McGill


Thou still unripened bride of sunshine

Thou foster child of the South

Your true roots reach to the North and Midwest,

Where summers are short and

When “the frost is on the punkin”

You and your siblings,

Fallen short of your true, juicy, fire-colored fate,

Some mother of invention found a means 

Of putting your stored sunshine on a plate.

The hands that carefully saved seeds 

From your grandmother’s summer

Cared for your mother’s fragile seedling 

Through this year’s rains and cold spells of spring.

They gently tended her wild, glorious tendrils--

Those tendrils that beckoned the tiny pollen hunters

Who, unknowingly, inseminated your mother’s blossoms

So that you and your sisters could exist.

The magical transformation of flower to fruit,

A miracle of nature.

Your mother’s earlier flowers and fruits soaked up the northern sun

And ripened to the summer song of the cuckoo

To a brilliant rosy red.

Sliced on a plate with a touch of salt and pepper

Or eaten like an apple, barefoot in the garden

The summer’s first, wet, juicy, smooth, and soft

Bite goes down

The flavor is one I feel from my lips to deep in my breast

A pleasure, a privilege to know.

But you, dear immature friend,

Will never know this intended fate.

The geese are heading south again

And you are not yet red

But those hands that cared for your family before you

Will not simply let you

Fall to the earth and return

To the soil from which you were birthed.

Unlike your soft and red older sisters,

Your green body is firm and secretly, deliciously tart.

The mother’s hands know just how 

To prepare you with flour and corn meal,

Eggs and milk, 

A frying pan sizzling with hot oil.

Your crispy outside complements your softened inner meat--

With a dash of salt

Is an Appalachian treat.


Like you, I was a child once, 

With a mother in the north country.

Her beloved hands, young then,

Tended tomatoes in a jungle of a garden

Overflowing with a kaleidoscopic bounty:

First asparagus, then lettuce:

She taught me

To bring a salt shaker out to the beds,

The joy of tearing a leaf of lettuce from the soil,

Sprinkling it with salt, and behold:

A savory summer snack.

After greens, then beans,

Oh so many of her meaty, bland beans.

Mother, ever the provider, would blanch the green soldiers

And carefully pile bags of them in the chest freezer

The better for us to enjoy in the dead of winter.

She made sure the least-est tastiest of the summer harvest

Outlasted all the rest.

Then green peppers would arrive, 

And sunflowers would reach for the sky

Watching over the garden.

Sweet corn would tassel,

And the first tomato fruits would ripen to red,

The regal red of a summer visitor’s epaulets--

Those of the male red winged blackbird.

For those of you who would not make it to red,

When my mother first made fried green tomatoes

To my virgin mouth

It was love at first bite.

What was this magically tart, soft yet crunchy

Explosion of joy in my mouth?

I would burn my mouth with impatience

For more fried green bliss from the pan.


Many decades later, many states away from home,

Me, trying to make a new home

And wanting to satisfy a long-ignored craving.

I bought some green tomatoes,

And followed my mother’s recipe,

And even though the results met the letter of the law

They fell short of the spirit.

The taste was right but still did not satisfy

A hard to reach itch,

The longing for a faraway home

From the past,

And a longing for a home full of

My own dear ones to love.

The recipe left out the part about a 

Kitchen full of noisy children,

A barking dog outside,

A loving mother orchestrating the chaos.

Despite the miracle of a fruit

Embodying sunshine to feed

And fuel my body

It can’t always feed that longing of spirit.

But someday you will, my round green friend,

When I cook you up for my dear ones,

Or simply fry you up for mom.

The author and her mom, Patty, circa 1993.


Green tomatoes, original work by the author.

Photo 1: The author's mother, Patty, gently holding a momentarily lost juvenile green heron. The family garden is in the back left.

Photo 2: The author, age 6, and the towering sunflowers above and chard below. The hills of western Pennsylvania in the background.

Bonnie McGill, @BonnSci, is an ecosystem ecologist living in Iowa City, IA with her dog, Bowie. Patty Moorhead lives in Indiana, PA, with a new kitten, Buttercup. Patty is the younger sister of Cheryl Moorhead Stone who brought us the pokeberry story. Bonnie is the younger sister of Tim McGill, featured in her first PLS, Two siblings, one tree, and one broken arm. All three of these stories take place in Indiana, PA.


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