When I was a young whippersnapper, I remember folks on Blair Branch calling tomatoes “maytos” or “maters,” but hardly anybody added the first syllable. Both of the short versions were pronounced with a “long A.”
I usually refer to my favorite garden plant as “maters” despite the subtle objections and/or tolerances of my more dignified family members and friends. I have no idea where the “mayto” moniker originated but I do know that all three of my younger brothers regularly use the term, as do a host of other folks in Letcher County.
A year or so ago, I was attending one of our family and friends diabetes fund raisers in Richmond, where I had previously arranged to drop off some home-grown tomato plants for a friend who was also planning to be there. We are always early to arrive at these events, so I simply sneaked the halfdozen container of plants behind a pinball machine where I figured they would be hidden from prying eyes, safe from harm and out of the way.
About 30 minutes later, I saw my friend enter the crowded restaurant. I stood up and yelled to get his attention. When he saw me, I hollered, “Hey John, your maters are right beside you under the race car pinball machine. You’d better grab ’em before somebody else cabbages on ’em!”
I heard someone at our table ask our daughter, Jennifer Ochs, what I was talking about. Jennifer just rolled her eyes and shook her head. “That’s just my dad trying to give Mr. Gump some tomato plants he has hidden away before someone else finds them.”
I could tell from her tone of voice that Jennifer and her friend were not overly concerned about anybody stealing my prize mater plants. Speaking of which, I have heard from over a dozen readers that the mater seeds I sent to well over a hundred of you last fall are performing very well. If you haven’t planted yours, it’s probably too late to get them started unless you plan on having ripe tomatoes in late September. However, if you stick the seeds in your freezer right now, chances are very good that they will sprout next spring.
I once found three varieties of some old mater seeds in the bottom of a freezer drawer that the late Molly Helton had given to me more than 10 years earlier. Molly had put the seeds inside small paper envelopes about size of modern day seed packets. I have no idea where she got them, but the little envelopes seemed designed expressly for the purpose of saving and storing garden seeds.
The ones I found were signed by Molly, labeled and dated in 1993. I didn’t find and plant them until the spring of 2004. To make a long story short, if any of them failed to sprout I didn’t notice it. I recall giving plants to several people and bragging about how old the seeds had been.
In the meantime, I am only growing three varieties from seed this year. Mr. Parkinson has made it far too difficult and aggravating for me to contend with the tedious process of starting transplants from tiny seeds. I will, however, be setting at least a dozen or so plants that I have acquired or plan to acquire from other growers.
Brother Andy already has six plants in the garden. My back is sore from watching my little brother till and dig. Now we have to hope that blackberry winter doesn’t wipe us out the way it has for the last seven years running. Still, hope springs eternal and we can always replant if we have to. It isn’t like we’re not used to it.
In the spirit of not counting my maters until they hatch, any plans for saving seeds this summer are on hold. I do admit, however, that last year’s project brought me upwards of 200 hours of enjoyable therapy despite Parkinson’s best efforts to thwart me.
According to some reports, some of you have enjoyed growing your own heirloom mater plants over the last several weeks. Here’s hoping they continue grow, produce and taste as well as their parents did!