Anyone who read my most recent memoir, The Bucolic Plague, knows that late 2008 through mid 2009 were a pretty tough time for Brent and I. We both lost our jobs, our savings were dwindling, and we were trying to pay for two mortgages with soap. All of these misfortunes were pretty horrible. But then came the final blow. In early summer. The Great Tomato Blight of 2009.
I can persevere through a lot. I’ve driven myself to hospitals twice for emergency surgeries. I survived on the streets in France after my high school French Club exchange family changed their locks once they’d cashed the check from the hosting agency. And I’ve danced on pillars of precariously stacked speakers, two stories above the dance floor. Actually make that: two stories and 7 inches above the dance floor – considering heels.
But the 2009 Tomato Blight almost broke me. Nearly from the moment I’d planted our seedlings in the ground, the Blight became an inescapable topic. I first heard news of it from a Beekman1802.com visitor in one of our garden comment sections, who warned of the encroaching plague. Down at the Cobleskill Agway, customers discussed The Blight in the same hushed and furtive tones as the out-of-work financiers in NYC whispered about the latest stock plunge. According to every gardening website, the Great Tomato Blight was not a matter of if, it was a matter of when.
“When” for me came in early July. After a weeklong period of rain, I arrived at the farm one Saturday and found the bottommost leaves of our two dozen or so tomato bushes speckled with brown dots and drooping. I convinced myself that it was merely a reversible annoyance called “Leaf Spot” after scouring the internet for lesser diagnosis like someone pouring through the pages of Web MD hoping to find confirmation that their gangrenous big toe was simply an advanced hangnail. By the following weekend, every last plant crumbled to the touch. I’d been Blightten.
As I said, losing one’s tomatoes on top of losing one’s job felt like being peed on from the caboose after getting hit by a train. Tomatoes, to me, represent a kind of temporary immortality. Ending the summer with rows and rows of canned tomatoes in the cellar ensure that no matter what happens during the long winter, at least I won’t die of scurvy. And, unlike most of my many neuroses, that particular paranoia was validated during the winter of 2008, when the jobless Brent and I were forced to cut our grocery bill to near zero. We subsisted on a steady diet of thinned out spaghetti sauce, interspersed with withered roasted root vegetables. But what would we do with no tomatoes to last us through the coming tough winter? Even with one of us back at work, we were still short on cash, and I couldn’t face a bleak winter forecast of rutabaga blizzards, with the occasional 30% chance of turnips.
The Blight struck around the same time as our first meeting with Planet Green. Shortly after that meeting, two women were sent to the farm – one with a camera, and one with a vision. They followed Brent and I around for a few days, capturing our first recorded bickerings to take back with them to LA in an attempt to cobble together twenty minutes or so of something remotely watchable. To some, filming a pilot for a television show might seem like an exciting opportunity, but Brent and I had been there before. The previous summer, another production company had tried the same thing, and the result was as interesting as a CSPAN phone-in show crossed with the A.M. Boise! grain report. Not their fault, mind you. Brent and I are to film what a hospital gown is to fashion.
But these particular two women, along with their colleagues both in LA and at the network, seemed to find brief flashes of, well, flash amongst the hours and hours of footage they shot of Brent and I. The result you know all too well already, so I won’t bore you with reruns.
But now that our first season of the show is over, and there are already 34 jars of this season’s tomatoes stacked neatly in rows in the Beekman basement, I remember something that our director said to me shortly after turning in her finished pilot episode:
“We [her and the editor] combed through hours and hours of the footage looking for conversations in which you didn’t mention the blight,” she said. “It was ‘blight-this’ and ‘blight-that’ every time you started a conversation with anyone.”
I don’t remember now if The Blight made it into any episodes. But I do remember entering autumn at this time last year with no tomatoes on the shelf. Our winter squash and cucumbers had also succumbed to the wet, cold, and mildew-coated summer, so no pickles or squash puree either.
Heading into the winter of 2009-2010, the only things we had in the can were three or four episodes of an as-of-then untitled reality show. The director had emailed us some photos of her production and editing team so we could see the faces of people who were performing Hollywood surgery on Brent’s and my day-to-day lives. In one of the photos, dozens of colored post-it notes were stuck to the wall behind the editor. I asked what they were for. The director explained that, basically, each one represented an interesting moment they’d found in the footage. Eventually, together, they would help build the structure of the episodes and then the entire series they would be editing together over the winter. Looking at them stuck to the wall in neat rows reminded me of the jars that didn’t fill our basement shelves.
By now everyone knows that we made it through that winter – even without any tomatoes. A few weeks ago the last jar of our previous year’s life was emptied and spread across television screens. And now I have a few weeks off. So I’m canning our endless bushels of beautiful heirloom tomatoes before Hollywood comes back into town to start filling their own jars of Season Two.
Some years, like this one, are bumper crops. And some years the only thing I have to talk about is a blight. But whatever the harvest, I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to get something on the shelf for the winter.