Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana, whose book on the culture of Kentucky sweets will be published in January 2014. Follow her on Twitter @scbaird.
Song: “Homegrown Tomatoes”
Without fail, every garden has a super-powered plant that grows just a little too well. One day, the ground is dappled with a sprinkling of tiny white flowers and vines, then almost overnight the garden bed has erupted into an avalanche of cucumbers or squash. No matter how much you might love a Benedictine tea sandwich or a hearty slice of zucchini bread, there’s only so much gourd one person can eat before it becomes, well, a little monotonous. Pretty soon, neighbors are crossing the street to avoid your “generous” offers of produce and the thought of setting up a tiny roadside squash stand starts to make a lot of sense.
The only exception to this rule? The almighty tomato. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could ever tire of letting its juices dribble down his or her chin. In Guy Clark’s 1983 song “Homegrown Tomatoes,” the country music legend pays homage to this ruby red giant of summertime dining, exploring his deep admiration for the fruit with a twinkle in his eye and chuckle in his verses.
In the first season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano explains to his therapist that he often worries the world has lost all its “Gary Coopers”—strong, silent men who worked hard and were admired for those traits. My greatest fear is that the world will not keep creating men at the caliber of Guy Clark, whose earnest, understated, and heartfelt way of songwriting and approaching life helped to nurture a generation of Nashville musicians and songwriters, including Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and his longtime friend Townes Van Zandt.
While “Homegrown Tomatoes” might not be the Clark tune that will reduce you to a puddle of tears (that would probably be “The Randall Knife”) or encourage you to take that flying leap toward your dreams (that would be “The Cape”) the song’s homespun imagery makes his no-frills joy practically tangible. Clark’s husky voice cracks the first joke of the song (Plant ‘em in the spring, eat ‘em in the summer/All winter without ‘em is a culinary bummer) and listeners are transported, sitting around a kitchen table where he’s picking and everyone has a big slice of tomato pie waiting on their plate.
In addition to providing tomato-picking tips, the song spends an entire, lengthy verse outlining a plethora of ways to eat them (Eat `em with eggs, eat `em with gravy, Eat `em with beans, pinto or navy), with the final assertion that, perhaps, tomatoes can be a cure for all ailments. The song ends with a black comedic turn, as Clark explains that his post-mortem wishes have nothing to do with funerals or caskets, but to be planted in a tomato patch so he can be “pushing up homegrown tomatoes.” Who’s to say that’s not the best way to go?
While Guy Clark assuredly knows a thing or two about a good tomato, he also is something of an expert on love. Married to his wife, Susanna, for forty years before her passing in the spring of 2012, I can’t help but feel the most important wisdom in the entire song comes in the refrain, “There are only two things that money can’t buy/And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
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