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Continued: A family heirloom

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 23, 2008 - 6:00 AM

His best memory is of taking the salt shaker out to the garden, twisting one of Grandma's pink-red tomatoes from the vine, swishing it under the hose and eating it there, "right down to the little nub."

Dr. Greg Pappenfus was a kid then, many decades ago, when a summer day could last forever. Now he's 71, when even a year flies by, so when he looks at the tomato plants flowering in his yard these days, the worthiness of his annual seed-saving ritual hits home.

This season's tomato plants began with the seeds of the seeds of the seeds -- keep saying this around 150 times -- of the seeds that his great-grandparents brought over from Trier, Germany, to their new home in Minnesota's Stearns County. John and Mary Gregory also once stood under a familiar sky, hefting the big-as-your-hand tomatoes, savoring the same incomparable tang.

It's quite a thought and, now, quite a tribute. But its roots are humble thrift and sensibility.

Each fall, Great-Grandma saved seeds for the next spring's sprouts, teaching her daughter, Hermina, how to spread them over cheesecloth to dry. When Hermina married Michael Pappenfus in 1904, she kept up the tradition, even when they moved to a ranch in Montana.

They settled near a town named Plentywood, proof that at least one pioneer had a sense of irony. There, she gave birth to four sons and two daughters; the latter two died as newborns.

One winter, Grandpa Mike went out to check on his livestock and was stranded in a blizzard. He made it home, only to fall ill with pneumonia and die soon after -- but not before urging Hermina to return to Minnesota to raise their sons, Clarence, Norbert, Wilfrid and Ernest.

And so Grandma Minnie returned to St. Cloud, named for the magnificent palace near Paris where Josephine waited for Napoleon, proof that at least one pioneer had a sense of romance. When oldest son Clarence married Barbara Alstatt in 1933, that union led to three children, one of whom is Greg Pappenfus.

Which brings us to a table in the Copper Lantern on the east edge of St. Cloud, talking with Pappenfus about what it means to keep a strain of tomatoes going for generations.

'They take a lot of putzing'

"Grandma always told us, 'I hope you keep the Pappenfus tomato going,'" he said. And so he has, although he admits to certain years of feeling overwhelmed. "They take a lot of putzing." The strain is so old that it lacks resistance to bugs and diseases, so the plants need to be dusted with a fungicide and hand-watered to keep the leaves dry. "Otherwise they get what we call the blight."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The process really begins in the fall, when Pappenfus (as those before him) chooses a couple of the most perfect tomatoes. He scoops out the pulp and seeds, spreading a rosy smear across a paper towel to dry. After a few days, he picks out the seeds -- there actually are very few, so they are quite precious -- and transfers them to a fresh paper towel, repeating this over a couple of weeks until the seeds are bone dry.

"Then I wrap them in waxed paper, slip them into a bag and put 'em in a drawer," Pappenfus said. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, it's clear that he wishes he could say "bank vault" or "lockbox" or "treasure chest" -- something with greater connotations of security. But it's always been a drawer, and it works.

The best of the best of the best

Pappenfus, a dentist, tells about the rest of the process from the perspective of memory, looking around the restaurant's dining room to give some sense of the expanse of Grandma Minnie's garden. "Gardening was a big means of putting food on the table," he said.

Each March, she'd enlist the boys to sift dirt through a screen into a form divided into grids. In each grid, she poked a hole and dropped in two seeds. If both sprouted, the punier sprout was plucked. It was the first winnowing of a method built around the philosophy of nurturing only the best of the best of the best.

The seedlings would bask in a south-facing window, the sturdiest being transplanted into ever-larger containers. While they grew, the garden bed was prepared.

"We'd go up north and come back with two or three garbage cans full of smelt," Pappenfus said. "After we'd clean them, we'd save the heads and guts, then throw a gob of them in each hole and cover it with dirt." Eventually, when all the danger of frost had passed, they planted the seedlings, now about a foot tall, into this enriched soil.

Digging a rather oblong hole, they laid about two-thirds of the plant horizontally in the ground. "The roots always had to point south."

Why?

He shrugged. "Because they always did."

Even more putzing

A strong root system would develop from the buried stem, which also was wrapped with newspaper two inches above and below the ground to thwart cutworms. Again, putzy work, but nothing compared with the tales Grandma Minnie would tell about beating off waves of grasshoppers.

Over the summer, they would pinch off the suckers -- fruitless fronds of leaves -- to send more energy to the stalk and fruit, and stake the plants to fence posts with old hosiery.

"Uncle Norb built an underground watering system to keep water off the leaves," Pappenfus said. "He'd also lop off 50 percent of the fruit to concentrate all nutrients. Then in the fall, he'd load up a wicker basket and go in to town to win the biggest-tomato contest. People would be there with their big tomatoes and he'd lay his on the counter, and they'd just pack up."

Here's why: The Pappenfus tomato is a stunner, about the size of a softball, and meaty. Hand one over and a person is caught off guard by its weight. Slice off a thick slab and it hangs over the edges of a slice of bread. The color is a sort of pink-red, he said, looking around the restaurant at all the blouses and paintings and flower arrangements for a likely comparison. But there wasn't one. It's a particular sort of pink-red.

Tradition finds a way

Grandma Minnie might be surprised to know that her kin are still saving seeds. Then again, she'd made her wishes clear. That's one reason that Pappenfus had begun to worry. He and his wife have no children, and his brother and sister, who live out of state, get their tomato plants at garden centers, amazed that he still goes to all this trouble.

"One of the worries I had was that after me, it will be gone," Pappenfus said. So he's grateful that a friend and neighbor, Tim Chirhart, has become captivated by the idea of keeping alive this generations-old strain of tomatoes and has begun growing them, as well.

"They were a very, very proud people," Pappenfus said of his great-grandparents. "They wouldn't come to the United States until they had learned enough English to get along."

Fitting, then, that their German tomato is still a source of pride.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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