December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Tomato terror

By |2022-10-07T05:29:01+02:00September 29th, 2022|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Keeping your tomatoes safe (so only you can bite into them) is not a task for the fainthearted.

ell, not really, but growing tomatoes can be challenging even if both thumbs are green. To be clear, it’s not really the growing of them, but what one finds ON them when the season is underway.

In California, at least.

Here in France there is only the occasional stink bug with its little round, strangely shaped body, and who knows why they are called that? I’ve sniffed a few stink bugs during my garden days and have never noticed a smell. Perhaps the fragrant leaves of the tomato plants took over, along with the rosemary growing nearby, or the lavender just behind, or the long row of Genovese basil that took off this year, because the heat wave that blanketed France produced a bounty of pesto for memories of summer.

Still, I do remember the first time in my early gardener days that I was blithely searching among the leaves of my Big Boy and San Marzano tomatoes saw my first hornworm and screamed bloody murder!

Lordy, lordy, that long, slinky, bright green sectional caterpillar with one red eye/decoration (or whatever it is) peering out from under the horny head/tail almost made me give up gardening on the spot, but after a few too many had turned up on my precious plants, I declared worm war, even if they are not worms!

Lordy, lordy, that long, slinky, bright green sectional caterpillar with one red eye/decoration (or whatever it is) almost made me give up gardening on the spot.

Very few safe pesticides deter this insistent creature, so I plunged in with a purchase of Branovid wasp larva, which actually attach themselves to the caterpillar and do unmentionable things from inside their bodies and… Well, we’ll just leave that part unsaid, shall we?

I finally settled for a bacteria called Bacillius Thuringiensis, which, when ingested by my greedy green friends, would dispose of them and their families over time, but I did not want to wait!

These caterpillars travel in pairs, which made me think it must be easier to procreate quickly if you always had your mate on hand (which they did). I noticed another pair on one of my precious plants; and the leaves had been chewed through.

Hah, two of you, you little leaf-crunching-masticating marauders! I was not standing for that, not after I had planted my precious tomato seeds in sweet, black soil in March and watched them sprout into lovely little sturdy plants, then transplanted them to a larger pot, and then another to enable strong roots. You get the picture.

And there was the prospect of fresh tomato sauce all winter, simmered with a sweet onion and finished off with a spoon of butter, pinch of sugar and whizzed into glory with a hand mixer before heading for the freezer to await pasta, pizza, soups, stews, all of the lovely fall and winter dishes that achieve perfection with homegrown tomato sauce.

And the sweet tomatoes themselves, bathed in olive oil and nestling next to a mozzarella di bufala, or sliced on brown bread with mayo for southern tomato sandwiches, or simply plucked off the vine and bitten into, the fragrant juice running down my chin under the summer sun.

I was going to give up THAT?

No way, Jose.

Out went the wasp eggs, out went the organic, safe powders, and out went all benevolence I had attempted to feel for a creature of the planet, especially while he/she/it/they were devastating my Early Girls and Ondine de Cornue!

I saw only one way out, which was to scissor them in HALF with my trusy Fiskar kitchen shears, quick and neat (and they don’t multiply, unlike some halved creatures!).

And so, as they showed up over the growing season, with a snip my precious crop was saved!

It was the kindest cut of all.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.