Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
The tomato is very important to the average Italian. It’s not just a fruit or a vegetable but a metaphor for life. My grandparents grew up in Sicily, in the shadow of Mount Etna; a volcano that is still active today. Volcanic ash layered for thousands of years has created a rich bed of soil to grow the most beautiful tomatoes imaginable. Growing flavorful tomatoes has always been a source of great pride for Sicilians and Italians who emigrated to the Northside of Syracuse. The climate, as you might imagine, was a huge challenge. The short growing season, the lack of sunshine and most importantly the soil was just not as fertile, due to the general absence of volcanos on the old Northside. But the old timers were crafty; they knew how to build up the soil with nutrients. Both of my grandfathers loved to garden. Grandpa Russo passed away when I was very young and I never got to talk to him about his gardening secrets. Grandpa Emmi lived into his nineties and I was able to absorb a wealth of information from him.
Grandpa Emmi lived on Grumbach Ave next to Schiller Park. His garden was absolutely magnificent, especially his tomatoes. Grandpa paid attention to every detail, the soil, moisture, fertilizer and of course the sun. I recall stopping by Grandpa Emmi’s home one warm summer day. He was sitting in the backyard under the grape arbor sipping a glass of his homemade wine. The conversation quickly focused on grandpa’s garden. He explained how he just spent the morning pruning his tomato plants. He actually examined each tomato plant and tended to its needs. This morning he concentrated on pruning off the bleeders. If a branch on the tomato plant didn’t have a flowering bud or an actual tomato he would snip it off. It was a bleeder, taking valuable nutrients that would otherwise be fortifying his soon to be beautiful red tomatoes.
I was living around the corner from my grandfather on Park Street at one time. “Tomato inspecta, the tomato inspecta is a here”, I heard over the knock on the door. I recognized the broken English but what was this tomato inspector stuff all about? I had a very small house with a very small backyard and a very small tomato patch. Somehow grandpa found out about it. He was there to make sure I was doing the job right. We went right to the backyard and my humble tomato patch. Grandpa reached down and burrowed his fingers into the ground grabbing a pinch of soil to taste. I waited nervously for his judgment. “Did a you use a the cow manure?” he said knowingly. “No”, I replied, “I just raked in a bag of top soil I got from the hardware store.” “Oh Joey, you gotta use a lots a cow manure”, he said with his hand on my shoulder. It was clear there was more at stake here than growing tomatoes, it was family pride. The tomato represented hard work, commitment and an understanding of how to live a good life. If you lived on the northside the quality of your tomatoes were indicators of your commitment to that good life.
My grandfather had a stroke while in his early nineties but he still had to have his garden. He could no longer till the soil by hand with a pitch fork. My Uncle Sam Emmi told me he was going to grandpa’s house to rototill the garden. He said, with the big smile he was famous for, “..meet me at grandpa’s tomorrow”. He thought I might be able to rake the soil or help out in some other way. As we unloaded Uncle Sam’s rototiller from his Buick station wagon grandpa became very agitated. “No, no, no machine!” he exclaimed in a high pitch voice. “You’ll bruise a the soil. Nothing will grow!” Uncle Sam reacted with a big laugh, “Oh Pa, the tiller is so much easier. It saves so much time.” Back and forth went the argument and as one would expect grandpa won. So, Uncle Sam and I spent the entire day digging with pitch forks, raking and breaking up clumps of soil, getting rid of stones and weeds. At the end of the day Grandpa had his beautiful “unbruised” soil and lovely red tomatoes. We had our aching backs. The essence of this story is captured in a song by John Denver. “What would life be without home grown tomatoes? Only two things money can’t buy, that’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”