Laughing in the Golden Years – Tomato Sandwiches


Maryann Nunnally, Contributing Writer

Soon after WWII ended, my father finished up a new house that he built for my mother. It was a good thing because the house we lived in was one step above a camp. A coal furnace gave us heat, but there was no bathroom or any electric conveniences. But all of that is another story. Mother’s new house was a dream that we all enjoyed, especially the bathroom with a tub, sink, and a flush toilet. What a miracle.

The house with a full basement stood high on the ground where it was built. My father bargained with the local malleable iron foundry to truck in the used sand to raise the ground around the house. The foundry, always looking for someplace to get rid of the used molding sand, delivered truckload after truckload and dumped it around our new home. Soon my dad borrowed a bulldozer and leveled out the sand, which was black and dirty. Winter came on and covered the ground with snow, but in the spring, before dad could start the grass growing, tomato plants, hundreds of them, popped up all over that black sand.

Mom, ever practical, told my dad not to try to grow a lawn until we saw whether or not we would get actual tomatoes from the plants in the yard. Sure enough, yellow buds bloomed, and within weeks all the plants had small green tomatoes on them. Later there were large, bright red tomatoes all over our yard. Dad reasoned that the men who worked in the foundry had sat on the piles of sand behind the iron plant and had eaten tomato sandwiches for lunch. Some of them may have spit seeds out at each other or just spit them because they could. Whatever had happened, we now had more tomatoes than we could possibly eat. Mom gathered them by the basketful, and her kitchen was awash in canning jars and cooked tomatoes.

As for me, those bright red tomatoes were a delicacy beyond anything I had ever tasted. Mother gave me a clean cloth and the salt shaker, and I sat out on that warm black sand in the summer sun with a book in my lap and ate tomato after tomato. On rainy days mom slathered mayonnaise on two thick slices of her homemade bread and made a tomato sandwich for my lunch. Did I get tired of the tomatoes? No. I have never since had anything that was that delicious, either warmed from the sun and salted or placed between those fresh slices of mom’s bread.

Summer came to a close, and we still had canned tomatoes all winter from mother’s harvest. As the years passed and grass thrived on the black sand surrounding our house, I wished for another year of gorgeous tomatoes, but alas, a yard full of huge ripe tomatoes never returned.

Several years later, when I was a young wife and mother, I returned home for a visit. To my surprise, the local malleable iron foundry had been torn down. Surrounded by a high fence and official signs which read, “Danger. Do not enter,” it resembled a government base. Questioning my mother about the demolition of the plant and the mysterious signs, Mom explained, “Demand for malleable iron simply disappeared and when there was no more business, the owners decided to tear the place down. Someone in the government inspected the site before it could be sold for some other use, and the next thing we knew there was the fence and the official signs. Rumor has it that the ground and the sand that was left is full of radiation. Now we hear that the government has hired a company to clean it up.”

While I was visiting, men in hazmat suits showed up, and soon every bit of the ground behind the fence was scraped clean. Immediately the whole place was covered with concrete, and signs gave permission for town’s people to park their cars there for car-pooling into the nearby cities.

I never really knew if the ground and sand were contaminated with radiation or not, but that same sand lay around our home, and I ate hundreds of tomatoes that grew in the sand. To date, I have never glowed in the dark, so I guess the tomatoes were not contaminated, or maybe the radiation just made them bigger and really tasty.