Memories and Musings: The Perfect Tomato

Published 6:08 am Tuesday, December 10, 2019

By Gene Gallelli

Victory Gardens — also called War Gardens — were a way for hometowns and cities to contribute to the World Wars One and Two (WWI and WWII) efforts by growing the vegetables, fruits, herbs, etc. consumed by families without the need to draw from food supplies needed by the men and women in battle.

Both of my grandfathers and favorite uncle, borrowing farming skills brought from Italy, turned the concept of Victory Gardens into works of art. After harvests, my grandmothers and aunts would can, dry, bottle, or store in basement “fruit cellars” all the ingredients needed to make the mouthwatering sauces, stews and preserves that tickled our palates throughout the cold, snowy winters. (I can still taste the juicy Concord grapes from one grandfather’s vines, the cherries from another’s and my favorite uncle’s corn and peaches.)

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Although unspoken, and fueled by deep pride and subtle chords of healthy competition, a tip-of-the-tongue question remained: Who had the best garden? (I must admit I had a favorite, but have chosen to avoid the two bolts of lightning that would follow my disclosure!) Each garden was a beautiful landscape of reds, greens, yellows and even purples that made your mouth water in anticipation.

All three magnificent spreads more than filled the plates of my extended family throughout my youth and into my early college years, until my grandfather Gallelli was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In the early stages, after he and my aunt had built a home two houses away from ours on Worthing Terrace, his gardens continued but got smaller and smaller until only a few tomato and cucumber plants adorned the street side of his garage.

Living directly across the street from my grandfather was a well-known newscaster from popular radio and TV shows broadcast from the city of Rochester, New York. He was not shy about his fame and notoriety and could often be seen tending the “heirloom” tomatoes in his small garden.

One day I’ll never forget, as I was push-mowing my grandfather’s yard and he was staring at his tomato plants, I heard the newsman brag aloud about his tomatoes to my grandfather and asking him if his were doing well.

I remember the smile and the always-ready twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes as he turned around and displayed in his outstretched, shaking hand the reddest and roundest tomato I had ever seen. Upon viewing my grandfather’s hand-held sample, the newsman managed a humble smile and returned to his gardening.

When I asked my “grandpa” if he had more tomatoes like the one he was holding, he, with great effort, threw it underhand to me. I crossed to where it landed and picked up the bright red “rubber ball” he would squeeze to help lesson his shaking.

Yes, history will long remember the Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII, but in my book that rubber ball was a victory no other garden can or will ever produce.

Gene Gallelli was Associate Superintendent of the Dare County Schools for eight years. He received his Doctor of Education degree from East Carolina University, where he taught and supervised students studying to become school administrators.