William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden is a gleeful hybrid of a book: part food memoir, part science experiment, part diary, and all adventure story.
Alexander spends his days working as a director of technology at a psychiatric research institute, making him an unusual candidate for the job of food writer. But he is a joyful, self-deprecating, and witty narrator, navigating the tangled back story of his huge, rambling garden with bottomless reserves of cheer, determination, and ironic humor.
As dedicated amateur gardeners, both Alexander and his wife dreamed of owning a plot where they could test their gardening aptitude. The large, undeveloped back yard of the couple’s new Hudson Valley home — a rocky, uncultivated wasteland — proved the ultimate enticement. And also the ultimate challenge.
From the first planning stages of his admittedly ambitious gardening venture (“twenty rectangular beds, averaging four by twelve feet”) to the harvesting of his first Brandywine crop, one obstacle after another crops up, like the hordes of uninvited weeds choking Alexander’s beds.
He haggles with absentee contractors, causes a three-car pileup on a rural highway looking for a hidden nursery, and tackles the monumental task of hand-weeding nearly all of his beds. He tries to outsmart (via a 10,000-volt electric fence) a whole herd of hungry deer, an extremely persistent and versatile tomato-loving groundhog (aptly nicknamed “Superchuck”), and a “snarling, tooth-baring, drooling opossum from hell,” among other burrowing, snarling, disease-carrying creatures, all hell-bent on stripping Alexander’s lovingly planned vegetable and flower garden to its stems.
After one year of particularly difficult and costly battle with the garden and its large, furry fan club, Alexander sets out to determine the actual cost of producing the fragrant, rare Brandywine tomatoes that he (and Superchuck) love so dearly. Compiling the costs of everything — the construction of the garden and its accompanying trimmers, mulch, hedges, and fencing, along with the gardening books, subscriptions, and plants — Alexander calculates the staggering start-up cost for his garden: $16,565.
He then uses prices from his local farmers’ market to estimate the market value of the food his garden produced in the past year, and finally arrives at the cost of producing just one of his dear Brandywines: $64.
Alexander doesn’t conclude from this, however, that his expenditures of money, blood, toil, tears, and sweat were wasted. Pitfalls in the garden are inevitable and, on such a grand scale, even comical. It’s simply better to laugh than cry, Alexander suggests, when pests tunnel through the heirloom vegetables, or Superchuck endures another 10,000-volt shock in pursuit of one more tomato.
Like Superchuck, Alexander absorbs the shock of the staggering cost of his sprawling garden but, persistently, keeps coming back for more. They both know that the pain of the garden (whether electrical or financial) is, quite simply, worth it.
Absurd? Maybe. But it’s impossible not to be charmed by Alexander’s ambition, resourcefulness, and endless good humor in pursuit of the perfect homegrown vegetable. For him, and for many home gardeners, the question “Is it worth it?” is the real absurdity.
While his wildly extravagant $64 tomato might be worth just that on paper, Alexander is smart enough to know that his tomato’s true worth can’t be measured in terms of dollars but rather in the pleasure of simply “sitting here, in late September, at my kitchen table, cradling a ripe, heart-size Brandywine tomato in the palm of my hand,” bringing with it the “warmth of the September noon sun, warming my hand, almost pulsing with life.”
Stephanie Beechem is a Culinate intern.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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