Dollars and Cents Tomatoes and Preserves

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Dollars and Cents, Tomatoes and Preserves

Bully Pulpit Alert, World of Dreamers. I’m about to get on my soapbox and philosophize on the topic of dollars and cents, tomatoes and preserves. Maybe you can help me with this one.

I’ll begin with a story about my gardening friend. I’ll call him Mr. Tomatoes. He lives on a couple of acres right here in the middle of town, and in the last couple of years he has put his excess acreage to use as a garden.

Mr. Tomatoes loves to garden, with a capital LOVE. The man maintains entire scrapbooks devoted to every vegetable he grows, complete with pictures, seed packets, watering notes, seedling growth rates, and production calculations. And it pays off. Last summer, a strange and cool summer, which in most areas around these parts was therefore devoid of Real Tomatoes, Mr. Tomatoes and his garden were undaunted. They were so undaunted that on a single evening in October, Mr. Tomatoes and his wife harvested 200 pounds of tomatoes. Yes, you read that right. They only stopped because (1) it got dark and (2) they had no more receptacles to hold tomatoes, and no more counter space and table space besides.

Mr. Tomatoes is very generous with his produce all summer long. He regularly shows up with baskets full of gorgeous, ripe vegetables. You know how they say that organic fruits and vegetables can never be as pretty as industrially farmed, genetically suspect fruits and vegetables? Well, they are dead wrong, because they have never seen produce grown by Mr. Tomatoes. It belongs on the cover of Sunset Magazine and would need no polish or fancy lighting at all.

The thing is, Mr. Tomatoes thinks we are doing him a favor by being willing to take his produce. If we weren’t willing, he couldn’t garden on the grand scale that tickles his fancy. He would have to either get used to throwing away food (akin to throwing away children), or he would have to restrict himself to one or two plants. But no. He wants to grow and compare 20 varieties of tomatoes, along with 10 varieties of hot peppers, 7 of summer squash, and 3 or 4 strains of corn. He’s got five varieties of basil, two of rosemary, and at least 10 kinds of lettuce. He can’t possibly eat everything he grows, so he’s got to have someone to give it to. In his mind, thank God we live around the corner so he can haul the excess over to our house every couple of days.

We are enabling his gardening jones, you see.

Still, Virgo Man and I find ourselves looking for ways to give back. Who wouldn’t? Organic tomatoes are $5 apiece at the local market, and here we are with a BUSHEL of organic tomatoes, for free. Sure, we contribute to the compost, and Mr. Tomatoes gets fresh Dungeness and salmon from us whenever we have it, but I still find myself wanting to make things with my own hands to show him how much I appreciate his generosity to my family.  I’ve decided this year I’m going to preserve and share. I’m going to learn how to make vinegar and hard cider from our apple trees. Maybe cook up some lemon curd and strawberry jam and peach preserves. I want to make something to give back, in like form, what I get from Mr. Tomatoes.

This long story brings me to a point. You could call what we do with Mr. Tomatoes commerce, and you’d be right. It fits the definition.

We get produce, he gets soil amendments, fresh fish, and eventually vinegar, preserves, and hard cider. But it sure is different from the more routine kind of commerce, consisting of driving down to the local market and plunking down $5 for a tomato.

It pains me to pay that $5, even though I know the tomato is well-raised and good for me, and even though I’m glad we have a local market and I want to support it. But I feel the opposite about getting tomatoes from Mr. Tomatoes. It pains me NOT to give something in exchange. In fact, I am out looking for ways to spend money that will result in something I can give Mr. Tomatoes. A cider press could set me back more than $300, not to mention all the bottles and other equipment – just for example.

So what gives? Going grocery shopping inspires me to hang onto my pennies. Getting produce from Mr. Tomatoes inspires me to invest in ways to compensate him. Somehow, even though both are “commerce,” these two kinds of transactions make me feel entirely different.

And here’s another thing. Mr. Tomatoes and I do not agree on plenty of things. He’s a Tea Party supporter. Let’s just employ a severe understatement and say I’m not. I believe in raising taxes on the 1% for the benefit of the 99%, and he says that’s socialist redistribution of wealth. We pretty much agree to avoid disagreeing by just not talking about stuff like this. But get us talking about food, and we meet right square in the middle. He opposes big-business food, because it’s bad for people and bad for the environment. Don’t tell the Tea Party he said that.  I oppose small producer government regulation, because it makes growing real food on a small scale too expensive. Don’t report me to the Democrats.

Go figure. Philosophically, we could clash. At the table, we’ve got nothing but agreements.

This is what I think. When we are exchanging things that we have created, that each of us can use with confidence and pleasure, then we are giving and receiving, not buying and selling. Give and take is the essence of compromise, of empathizing with another’s point of view. It breeds commonality and community. We have things to share, so we share them. We don’t weigh everything up, check out the market price, and figure out whether each of us is getting fair exchange, we just trade and we share. Sometimes we make dinners together and sit down to a meal that inspires us to ruminate endlessly on how lucky we are to live like this.

Buy and sell is different from give and take. When I go to the market to buy a tomato, I’m thinking about what I won’t buy in order to get the tomato. It’s the consciousness of limited supply, and that’s an isolating feeling, not a community feeling. There is not enough for everything, so I have to choose some things and leave other things behind. Buy/sell has a subtle (maybe not so subtle) undertone of win/lose. Just writing these sentences puts me in a different frame of mind. Instead of sitting down to dinner with friends and treasuring our good fortune, I feel like I have to go home and cook Kraft Mac and Cheese for dinner, and be happy I can even do that.

So that’s it…today’s roundup on dollars and cents, tomatoes and preserves, with a little give and take and a splash of buy and sell. Help me sort this one out, World of Dreamers! Leave a comment below. And thanks for listening.