Editor’s note: This is another column in Bill Boyd’s new series, “The Way It Was,” about growing up in Marysville. Bill continues to work with the Union County Historical Society to obtain information for his stories. With Marysville and Union County celebrating Bicentennial anniversaries in 2019 and 2020, respectively, these articles help depict what life was like in those early years.
I think just about everyone has some vegetable they don’t like. Maybe it’s cucumbers, parsnips, or broccoli. There are even some people who don’t like asparagus, although I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t like it.
I have a niece, Jacky Griffith, who really dislikes lima beans. She refuses to eat them. Oddly enough, she doesn’t mind their taste, but she really dislikes their ”texture.” I guess I can understand that. I can’t explain it, but I can understand it.
I think the only vegetable that just about everyone likes is a tomato. I have never heard anyone say, “I don’t like tomatoes.” That’s why there are very few home gardens that don’t include a few tomato plants. And a lot of people who don’t even have a vegetable garden grow a plant or two in pots on their deck or patio.
During World War II, when the government was urging everyone to have a “Victory Garden” in the backyard, we actually had four gardens. One was in our backyard, and another was in my grandmother’s backyard. Then my parents owned a lot on West Third Street, where they put in a really large garden. And because my sister had a summer job at the Brass Factory (Eljers), she signed up for one of their Victory Garden plots on Chestnut Street.
And do you know what? Every one of those gardens included tomato plants. Not one or two, but a bunch. Why in the world did we need so many tomato plants? It was because we not only ate fresh tomatoes when they were in season, but we also ate them throughout the long cold winter. In fact, when a lot of people were snacking on popcorn, tomatoes were my favorite things to eat as I listened to the radio on winter evenings.
My mother and grandmother worked together to can the tomatoes. Unlike all the other fruits and vegetables which they canned in glass jars, tomatoes were “put up” in tin cans. My dad bought cases of cans at Shuler’s Hardware Store on South Main Street.
Tomatoes were “cold-packed.” I don’t know why they called it that, because it used a lot of hot water. My grandmother told me it allowed her to preserve them without cooking them. So it was pretty much like eating a fresh, raw tomato in the middle of winter.
They didn’t slice or dice them. They put them “whole” into those quart-sized tin cans. They placed the lids loosely on top of the cans and put them into the rack that went into the hot water bath.
At some point, they removed the cans and let them cool. As the air inside the cans cooled, the lids sealed themselves. Then they poured hot sealing wax around the rims. When the wax cooled, it turned hard as a rock, and I would help them carry the cans of tomatoes to the shelves in our basement.
My best memories of tomatoes are not of canning them, but of eating them. Let’s say my sister and I decided to have a snack while listening to the radio on a cold winter night. I would go to the basement and retrieve a can. My sister would go to our pantry and get the small tack hammer that we kept on a shelf just inside the door. She would use it to break up the sealing wax around the can rim. Then she brushed the pieces into a wastebasket. She had to be sure to get them all, for if you bit down on one of them, you could break a tooth.
The tomatoes that were used for canning were really large … so large that a single tomato would fill a good-sized cereal bowl. We would salt and pepper them, and I always added a splash of vinegar to mine. Then Maryann and I would carry our bowls to the living room, where she had set up a card table in front of our floor model Zenith radio. It was the perfect way to enjoy a good program.
One night it might be “Lum and Abner” or “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Another night it might be “Fred Allen” or “Major Bowes.” It’s hard to explain how good those radio shows were, especially while we were eating tomatoes.
But like a lot of other things in life, not all of my tomato memories are positive. When you have four Victory Gardens, it requires a lot of work – planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. And a lot of this work was done in the evening, after dinner. That’s also the time when the winds die down, and mosquitoes come out. Oh boy, did those mosquitoes come out!
I had so many mosquito bites on me that you wouldn’t believe it. I tried to use that citronella stuff my mother gave me, but it didn’t work. I would think anything that smelled so bad would keep them away, but it didn’t.
But my sorriest Victory Garden memory was watering the plants. Two of the gardens could be watered with hoses, but the other two were too far from a water tap. We couldn’t buy more hoses, for they were made of rubber, and they weren’t made during the war. The quick solution was – have Bill carry buckets of water from the tap to the garden. Then each plant could be watered by hand.
I can’t tell you how many buckets of water I carried during the war. Nor can I tell you how many mosquito bites I got in the process. But you know what? It was all worth it because my dad said those four Victory Gardens helped us win the war. And on top of that, I enjoyed those wonderful tomatoes all winter long while I listened to the radio.
Those wishing to contact Bill Boyd can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org