(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
Where summers are short and
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.
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.