Thursday, August 24, 2006

Squashed Caterpillar Reverie

Walking in the woods at Metrobeach today with Keith, I said, "Something smells weird." A moment later, after sniffing and analyzing the scent, I announced, "It smells like squashed caterpillars!"

As often happens, Keith was basically tuning me out (I must talk too much, that he finds it necessary to tune me out like that) so I went on considering the odor and it's implications. An image of my grandmother flashed into my mind. My Italian grandmother, Nicolina Maria. Fat, obese, squinting into the sun, round face, round body, large round arms to hold me on a lap compromised by her obesity. She smelled, I decided, like squashed caterpillars, a very pungent smell.

And why, I wondered, only for a moment, before the answer came, why was the smell of squashed caterpillars something in my childhood repertoire of identifiable smells? Instantly I knew: because it was my job as a child to go into the family garden and search the tomatoes for the huge " tomato worms" and kill them. They hid well among the leaves and stems and when I approached them, they reared up and swelled themselves larger, looking terribly fierce. Their strong scent was from the tomato plants they fed on. On the one hand, I was a little afraid of them. One the other hand, I respected them and hated to kill them. But I did it anyway, even though I didn't like tomatoes. My father did. And in those days, we needed the food. My mom canned the tomatoes for making spaghetti and other treats I did like.

My father offered us children $5 if we would ever pick up a tomato and eat it like an apple. To the best of my knowledge, none of us ever did this. I like tomatoes in small quantities in my salads or in a sandwich, but not a whole big tomato. I had tomatoes in my gardens for years. My favorites were the cherry and sometimes grape tomatoes, delicious warmed by the sun and popped whole into my mouth to burst and squirt their warm sweet juices down my throat. Small tomatoes, not the large beefsteaks my father liked. One of my favorites where the coyote yellow cherry tomatoes I got from my friend Debbie Hutchison who got them from Dave the poet farmer. They were heritage tomatoes.

Besides the huge garden, we had fruit trees, apples, peaches, pears, cherries. We'd planted them all. My mom, of course, with me helping, put them away as canned fruit, as jellies, jams and preserves. One batch of pear jam was so pale we tried added green coloring to it. The results were spectacular and tasted great. We labeled the jars very carefully and placed them on the shelf, label side out" "Tomato-worm Jam."


Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Shari Shared this story with me:

My "tomato worm" story is as follows: I was pregnant with Scott, we were for a time living at my parents' house (now Scott's house), my father always grew vegetables -- enough to supply all of the "old ladies" in the entire town as well as the secretaries to all of his doctors who were NOT in the town, and chief among all of the vegetables were his tomatoes. All kinds. Big ones and little ones, red, yellow, all brands he had not yet tried but would "this year".

So one day my dad had said something about tomato worms and I, confidence bording on conceit and fearing nothing because after all they were worms and how bad could THAT be, rushed to prove to my new husband that I was "ept". Larry laughed and so did my dad, but off I went down to the garden to pick tomatoes - oh, THAT was it. I was going to go and pick the tomatoes and my dad told me to watch out for them. Anyway, my maternity top laden with big fat juicy red Beef Steaks, I squatted for another run at the bent vines and suddenly there it was. A big ugly ridged thing with horns looking like a cross between the Devil and something the Devil had created owing to some dastardly deed the thing had done prior to being made the most ugly creature on earth. This, I was sure, was its payment for the deed.

I shot up abruptly, tomatoes splashing all over the ground beneath my feet (and on them as well!),
s-c-r-e-a-m-e-d like a banchee, RAN (9 months pregnant) up to the house, Lar a hyena, my father grinning in itoldyouso , and it was never mentioned again. Nor, was the instant sauce left rotting in the garden that day.

Sara said...

This is a great post! Did you and Keith ever find the source of the squashed caterpillar smell? Sometimes when there is a population boom, you will find them crushed on sidewalks and such. This seemed like an especially bountiful year for tent caterpillars, and we saw hundreds of remains down on M Street. I don't recall noticing any particular odor though... I'll have to pay more attention next time.

I am curious about your association of the scent with your grandmother. Is she tied in your memory to the garden in general, and the garden to the totmato worms? Or did she physically smell like caterpillars?

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Well, I was thinking of writing another post about my grandmother in the garden, but haven't had time yet. So yes I do associate her with the garden, but she also smelled like squashed caterpillars sometime, her person, her body. Dunno why.

Not all squashed caterpillars smell the same.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

No we never did find the source