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Thursday, August 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On the tomato trail: one family's U-pick adventure in the Yakima Valley

Seattle Times Travel editor

YAKIMA VALLEY — We are filthy, each in our own row of the huge tomato patch, haphazardly scooting along like Thoroughbreds-and-jockeys in those automated, carnival horse-race machines. Some of us are on our hands and knees, half in the mud of the small irrigation channels, half in the dust on top of the sun-cracked mounds, picking like maniacs.

Some squat, others bend over at the waist, picking more studiously.

And way, way behind us is my uncle, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, often kneeling on one leg, in the fashion many men adopt when worshipping the deity.

For truly, this is, to him, a religious experience — each tomato an icon, each bucketful a reminder of the fruit course that should have been included in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Each tomato must be perfect.

Various members of our family have made countless treks from the west to the east side of the Cascades over the years to gather whatever bounty the Yakima Valley had to offer. Among all of us, we have purchased or picked just about everything — except maybe for hops. (I put that down to the Italian heritage of drinking more wine than beer, though I'm not sure any of us would recognize a hop if it bit us in the taste buds.)

It's only been in the past few years that I've joined the tomato pilgrimage. I didn't relish the idea of driving for hours, groveling in the dirt, sweating, burning my skin, dragging millions of pounds of tomatoes home over the mountains and cooking for approximately two days when, hey, the main ingredient for a good tomato sauce is right down the street at my neighborhood grocery store. So what if it costs a bundle and has absolutely no flavor?

Now, though, I wouldn't miss this adventure for a free case of imported tomato sauce.

Here's our routine:

Predictably, we choose a couple days in September for the trek, because, my uncle explains, that's the time the plum-shaped Roma tomatoes are turning a deep red/purple — which means they're just about to go over the edge and rot. That's when they're the sweetest and best for sauce.

We each take our own cars. That's not being fuel-wasteful. Think about it — a passenger or 70 pounds of tomatoes; a passenger or 70 pounds of tomatoes? No one is willing to give up valuable cargo space.

We used to head for Krueger Family Peppers & Produce, in Wapato in the Yakima Valley. The farm shut down this year after having been on the scene for nearly 50 years, offering everything from grapes to peppers. It probably had more press for its pepper crops than anything else, and if I'm not mistaken that's what attracted my family's interest in the first place. But the tomatoes have taken over as first love. We'll have to find new fields.

We plan three days, from vine to sauce. My aunt usually calls ahead to one of the big roadside motor inns in Yakima and reserves a requisite number of rooms for the first night. We drive over in the morning, pick until we can't straighten up, then head to the motel early in the evening where we scrub up nicely and go off to dinner as our reward for the day's catch.

It's also a chance for us to be nice to each other again, because we usually have daylong in-the-field debates about whose picking style is the most productive. You must understand that we all truly do have our own picking styles.

My uncle really does study every tomato. There might be worms — see those little white spots on the outside of the tomato? There might be signs of rot. Scabs. Bugs. Too much water.

Several of my cousins adopt his style at first, and then after maybe a half-hour of picking and 10 tomatoes in their buckets for the effort, rapidly change over to something approaching my style — which is to pick everything as quickly as possible unless it falls apart in my hands; it'll all cook down anyway, including the worms.

I have one cousin who refuses to venture into the fields or even to head east. She believes Eastern Washington is overrun with snakes and she doesn't like them. We've yet to see any, but to her, the mere thought of thrusting her hands into bushes where she'll lose site of her fingertips is something akin to running out of foot lotion — simply horrifying.

Then there's my aunt. She has the best gig going. She does all the driving, and then, thanks to a back and a couple hips that haven't cooperated for some time, pulls her big Lincoln up beside the field, opens all the doors and windows (and often her blouse, too) against the heat and directs us as she relaxes and reads. Most of us pay homage to her after we've filled a bucket by showing her the contents. She her her the contents. She comments in some fashion and then returns to her own labors.

The next morning, after a night I swear is usually filled with dreams of man-eating tomatoes, we head for home and our respective kitchens. It usually takes the rest of that day and all the next to make sauce and freeze it.

Trust me. By the end of this latter endeavor I never want to see a tomato, let alone wear red, again. By the middle of winter, however, I have changed my attitude.

There are few things more miraculous than pulling a container of frozen tomato sauce from the freezer on a cold and wet Northwest winter day to use as a base in some hearty dish.

Maybe my uncle is onto something after all.

IF YOU GO

How to get there: Take I-90 east from Seattle to Ellensburg and then I-82 south to Yakima. Or head south from Seattle on I-5 and then over either Chinook Pass (Highway 410) or White Pass (Highway 12) to Yakima.

What to wear: Remember that it gets hot in Eastern Washington, even in the fall. Bring plenty of sunscreen. If you're going to do your own harvesting, wear a hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Wear sturdy shoes. Drink plenty of water and be ready to get plenty dirty. This is work — it is not time to play Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Packin' 'em home: Bring containers to carry home what you pick or purchase — paper bags, big plastic garbage bags, buckets, boxes, coolers. At most U-pick farms, you'll be able to use buckets provided while you're there — but that's it. You must provide your own fruit and vegetable transportation from there.

Obey the rules: Respect the rules when picking. Pick where you're told, listen to instructions. And leave your pets at home.

Where to pick or buy fresh from the stands: One of the best places to check what's available is the classified sections of local newspapers. In the Yakima Herald-Republic look up category 742. You'll find new listings all the time for fresh farm produce, either U-pick or picked for you. A tip: The Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau in Yakima does some of the work so you don't have to. Copies of the classifieds are clipped each week and available at the bureau's office at 10 North 8th Street. The office is open seven days a week. Call 1-800-221-0751 for hours.

There are several other sources:

The site www.yakima.net has an agriculture section listing some of the farms in the area where produce is available.

And the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau will mail you a free Yakima Valley Farm Products Map if you call 800-221-0751.

What to pick when: Crops available for purchase or picking from August through the fall include apples, blackberries, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, grapes, herbs, huckleberries, loganberries, marionberries, melons, nectarines, okra, onions, peaches, pears, peppers, plumes, potatoes, prunes, pumpkins, radishes, raspberries, rhubarb, squash, tomatillos, tomatoes, watermelon.

Where to stay: Contact the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau for lodging possibilities. Call 800-221-0751, write to 10 North 8th Street, Yakima, WA 98901 or check www.visityakima.com.

Valley events:

Aug. 16 to 18 — Western Art & Rail Show in Toppenish. Railroad Park. 509-865-2089.

Aug. 17 — A Case of Blues & All That Jazz. Music, food, wine, beer. Sarg Hubbard Park. Yakima. 509-453-8280.

Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 — States Day Parade and Fly-in. Prosser. 509-786-3177

Sept. 27 to Oct. 6. — Central Washington State Fair. Yakima. 509-248-7160.

Wine: We'd be remiss in not including information in advance of the fall crush in the state's huge grape-growing region. Contact the visitors bureau for a copy of The Yakima Valley Wine Tour Guide.

Terry Tazioli: 206-464-2224 or ttazioli@seattletimes.com.

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