Telling our family stories: George Washington and the Poison Tomatoes

 

To begin with, this is a true story. It’s about George Washington—but not the George Washington you’re thinking of. The only thing famous about this George is his name—that, and the fact that he once lived a whole week by eating nothing but tomatoes.

First, we have to stick with this business about George’s name. You see, his full name was George Washington Richard Spoonemore. The way folks tell it, it was his Pa who named him such. I guess you could say that George’s Pa was an eccentric old coot. He was happier than a skunk in a hen house whenever he thought about his son walking God’s green earth with such a famous name.

george-washington-spoonemore
George Washington Richard Spoonemore.

Well, there was a mess of kids in that Spoonemore brood. George was closest to Ben and Perry, one being married to George’s sister (that was Ben) and one being his younger brother (that was Perry). Those three boys were inseparable.

George and his kin lived on a small ranch in Nowaday County, Missouri. They worked hard and most everything they had came from the land, which they worked like mules.

George worked hardest of all, but he played hard too. This was especially true when it came to his fiddle, which George had learned to play by ear as a boy. The way folks tell it, he could play a jig that would give the devil a hotfoot.

Many a night George’s Pa would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Why George Washington, you oughta play a tune fer yer ol’ pappy.”

“You stop pesterin’ that boy,” George’s Ma would always say. “He’s worked himself to the bone all day and oughta be able to put his feet up for five minutes.”

George’s Ma came from fiery Irish stock. Her eyes flashed blue, like lightning skies in May, and she had a nest of red hair. She was a tiny woman, George’s Ma, but most people judged her by her heart, which folks used to say was as big as the Ozarks.

“Go on now, Ma,” George’s Pa would protest. “I’m but askin’ fer a song or two. Surely the boy has ‘nough strength fer that?”

“That boy has more strength in his baby finger than most have in their whole soul, and you know it!” George’s Ma would always say.

But George didn’t need much convincing when it came to performing. He loved to play his fiddle more than a possum likes to play dead. Many a night all the family would gather around the cooking stove in their small kitchen and listen to George’s bow dance across his fiddle.

George was just a boy when his mother passed away. These were sad times, but it wasn’t long before George’s Pa married again. It was a heap of work to look after all those “younguns” and George’s Pa couldn’t do it all himself.

George called his Pa’s new wife “the old Widder Woman.” Folks say this was because she had been married before. They also said she was as nasty as a raccoon being treed by a hound.

George and the Widder Woman didn’t get on at all. She’d yell and shake her fists and call his fiddle the “devil’s instrument.” She wouldn’t stand for music, save Sundays in church.

For George there wasn’t anything worse than not being able to play his beloved fiddle. He hid it out in a hollow log in the woods and every now and then he’d sneak out there and play a jig. The only difference now was that he didn’t have an audience—just the foxes and possums and raccoons that came to see what all the fuss was about underneath that canopy of yellow stars.

One night, wandering back home, George came caught a glint of red in the moonlight. Upon closer inspection he found it to be a ripe tomato, growing right there in an open spot in the woods. He plucked it, brought it home and set it on the table.

Ben was sitting by the kitchen stove, whittling. He turned around and said, “What ya got thar, George?”

But before George could reply, the Widder Woman came storming into the kitchen.  “What y’all doin’, bringin’ the devil’s fruit in here?” she screeched.

“Now, what you talkin’ about?” George retorted. “I jist found this a-sittin’ thar in the wild. I thought maybe one of them younguns can eat it fer dessert.”

“That thar is a tomater!” the Widder Woman cried, eyes wide as two griddles. “Everyone knows they is deadly pizen.”

“Well, I’m not sure I believe in that thar nonsense,” George argued.

But before he could say another word, that old Widder Woman snatched the tomato and hurled it into the stove. “You’re a fool of a boy, that’s fer durn sure,” she scolded.

Well, those were dark times for George, dark as a well in winter. But they grew a whole lot darker when war broke out. It was 1861 and the North and South were itching for a big fight.

Pretty much everyone was going to sign up for the war, and that included George, Ben, and Perry. Now those three boys had been born in Indiana, so they figured on fighting for the North.

“My heart belongs up thar,” George said, “an’ I reckon a feller kin’t go against his heart.”

And so the three young men—not much more than boys, really—struck out for the north and enlisted in the Yankee army out of Indiana.

They saw a great deal of action, and the early days of the war were hard on those three. The sky roared with cannon fire. Bullets whistled. Horses whinnied. Men yelled, and gasped, and died.

“By gum, George,” Ben said one somber night after a terrible battle. “I shore got a hankerin’ fer sum of that fiddle music of yers.”

“Shore, George,” Perry added. “It’s a might intolerable with no music.”

George missed his fiddle too—sorely. So he said crossly, “Now, boys, y’all know I ain’t got my fiddle with me. Besides, I don’t see what’s musical ‘bout war. It jist ain’t proper.”

“Why. I don’t see why not,” Ben argued. “I reckon the way ya play that ol’ fiddle, ya could jist fiddle these dern Rebs into surrenderin’ and we could git on back home. I ain’t miss that old Widder Woman’s tongue, but she kin shore whip up a fine plate o’ grits.”

Well, the war brooded and fumed until, in 1864, it killed young Perry. As you can imagine, this was a great blow of sorrow to George and Ben.

“I shore don’t wanna tell Pa,” George confided in Ben. “But I reckon I oughta write him and lit him know how it happened.”

George never got to post that letter. He and Ben were captured just a few days later by the Confederate army. They were tossed into a prison camp, caged like a couple of hens waiting for the axe. It sure didn’t look like there was going to be fiddle music anytime soon.

George and Ben made a sorry pair. They spent the remaining days of the war in that camp, eating and living poorly.

When the war finally came to an end in 1865, the two young men, along with they rest of the prisoners, were set free. The problem was those two boys weren’t anywhere near home.

Now they had no money, George and Ben, and no food either. Their clothes were in rags and their boots were all but falling off their feet. Still, they were left to go home as best as they could.

They were many hundred miles from Missouri, a long way to go on foot, and barefoot at that. But George and Ben were determined to get back and see their Pa and the rest of the Spoonemore clan. So they set on their way.

It was tough going. The country was rough and the mountains were high. They lived on wild berries and the odd meal they were able to get from some friendly ranch houses. Mostly they slept on the ground, in fair weather or foul, but they kept on plugging along, day after weary day.

Those two had courage, but even courage won’t feed you after awhile. Those boys were plum tuckered out. Finally, after going several days without a lick of food in his belly, Ben just collapsed to the ground. He rolled up like a possum, and didn’t move a stitch.

“I shore wish ya had yer fiddle now, George,” Ben murmured. “I could use some o’ that music ta send me on up ta them pearly gates.”

“Ben, if I had my fiddle, I reckon I woulda ett it a week ago,” George told him. “Now git up, Ben. Y’all kin’t go dyin’ here whan thar might be an orchard right ‘round the bend.”

So Ben wearily picked himself up and the two men trudged off again, two tired mules trying to plow a field they thought might never end. But, sure enough, they were just struggling over the next hill when they came across a patch of glorious, ripe tomatoes. They were growing wild, right there along the trail, untouched by human hand. To George and Ben, these tomatoes seemed to stretch on for as far as the eye could see, round and red, glowing brighter than candles at Christmas.

“That’s a passel o’ tomaters,” George said, gazing upon them with a ravenous gleam in his eye. “I got me a dern notion ta eat some of them.”

“No, George, ya daresn’t eat them!” Ben cried, clutching the sleeve of George’s ragged shirt. “Don’t ya ‘member? Tomaters is deadly pizen!”

“Well, I ain’t ever met no folk that got sick from tomaters,” George said.

“That’s cause they all gone and died, them folks that ett the tomaters,” Ben said. “They’ll kill ya, shore as a bullet.”

“Heck, Ben, I don’t care,” George argued. “I got me a hankerin’ ta eat these tomaters. Fer all we know, the good lord put ‘em right here so we kin make it home agin.”

“Or it mighta been that ol’ devil,” Ben said. “Maybe he’s jist tryin’ to pizen us. He could be in with that ol’ Widder Woman.”

“Well, a man oughta die tryin’ and not jist a settin’ down ta take it,” George declared.

“Lemme see if I can rustle me up a shovel,” Ben announced. “I reckon I’m gonna need it ‘fore long.”

But George didn’t have an ear for anymore of Ben’s sass. The way folks tell it, that dirty, scraggly boy just squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and marched right into that field of wild tomatoes.

“I might jist as well die of pizen, as starve ta death,” George proclaimed. He said this loudly, like a preacher on Sunday.

Then, to Ben’s horror, George picked one of the tomatoes and gobbled it down. To George, nothing ever tasted so good! Why, that tomato tasted better than Aunt Mercy’s blackberry pie at the county fair. It tasted better than the sweets Joe Boot charged a whole penny for down at the general store. It tasted better than roasted hog at Christmas.

George just smacked his lips as he finished that tomato. He let the red juice and small yellow seeds trickle down his scraggly beard. Then he picked another tomato and ate that one too.

“Yer gonna keel over dead!” Ben warned.

But George kept on eating the tomatoes, and Ben kept on watching, expecting any moment that his brother-in-law would drop dead. But George didn’t drop dead. He just kept eating. Ben’s stomach now growled with hunger. His stomach told him to eat those tomatoes, but his brain told him no, that they were deadly poison.

After just a few minutes, George had eaten his fill. He sat back in the tomato field and stared up at the blue sky. He had never felt so full, so satisfied. Ben stared at him, expecting him to turn yellow, or green, or to just keel over. But George looked the same as before he had eaten the tomatoes. Just fuller.

“By gum, George, how ya feelin’ now?” Ben asked him anxiously.

“I feel good,” George replied. “I don’t reckon them tomaters wuz pizen! That’s jist an ol’ wives tale.”

Well, Ben couldn’t wait any longer. His stomach won out over his head. He dived into that field of tomatoes and just started wolfing them down. Afterwards, he lay down beside George, happy and engorged. They slept more soundly that night than they had in weeks.

The next day George and Ben got up and took off what was left of their shirts and filled them up with some more of the tomatoes. They set off for home again. They lived off the tomatoes for a whole week, eating them morning, noon, and night.

The landscape soon became more familiar. They were back in Nowaday County. Before long, the old ranch house came into sight.

“Thar she is, home,” George said, gazing wistfully upon their Pa’s farm from the hill above. “Ya know, Ben, I reckon them tomaters done saved our skins. It’s all we ett fer days. You imagine we never ett them tomaters? We’d be gonners fer sure!”

“All I know is I ain’t ever gonna be skeered ta eat tomaters agin,” Ben said.

The two men laughed and ran the whole last mile towards the ranch house. They never even stopped to consider how they looked. They were ragged and dirty and hadn’t shaved in weeks. They had no boots, no shirts, and their trousers were just rags. When George and Ben reached the yard, the old Widder Woman came out to the porch, a rifle raised.

“Y’all git, ya durn carpet baggers,” she warned, pointing the gun right at George’s head.

George and Ben looked at each other, exhausted. “Doncha see it’s us?” George asked. “It’s me an’ Ben!”

“Ya ain’t no sech thing!” the old Widder Woman hollered. “George an’ Ben never had no beards, and they never looked like you fellers, so git!”

Just then George and Ben’s Pa came riding around the house. He jumped off his horse and yelled, “George Washington! Ben! By gum, it’s good ta see ya!” He hugged the two boys, even though they were dirty and ragged. “Put that gun up!” he told his wife. “This here is George Washington an’ Ben, back from the war.”

The old Widder Woman glared hard at the two scraggly men. After a few moments, she finally lowered her gun.

“Wal, I’ll be,” she said. “Y’all don’t look like George and Ben. Ya jist ain’t the same as whan y’all left.”

“No, ma’am,” George said. “We shore ain’t.”

 

* * * 

This is a true story, based on the oral account handed down by my Great-Great-Grandfather, George Washington Richard Spoonemore. My Great-Aunt, Hazel Agar, wrote it down some years ago, though I have expanded many of the details, such as George’s love for his fiddle. From what I can glean, it was a widely-held belief in the American South of the nineteenth century that tomatoes were poison. When George and Ben found the famous field of “pizen tomaters” it took a great leap of faith to eat their fill. For the rest of his days, my Great-Great-Grandfather swore up and down that the tomatoes saved his life.

I shared this story with my students this past week as part of my creative writing class on family stories. This week’s assignment is to retell a family legend.

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2 thoughts on “Telling our family stories: George Washington and the Poison Tomatoes

  1. Wow! This was amazing storytelling. Really held my attention, very colourful use of language. I typically can’t stand 1800s American settings, but this is one of the best short story pieces I’ve ever read. I love how I didn’t have to think twice about what the characters were saying (that’s usually why I don’t like 1800s American settings).

    And people thought tomatoes were poisonous back then? My…we’ve come a long way haha

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