The Smell of Tomato, Basil and Fig

The early morning. It is my absolute favorite time of day. On most days, it is that window between 5 am and 7 am.

Until recently, I thought I loved early morning, because it is when I am most productive. Early morning brings with it quiet and solitude and the prospect of a fresh start. It is when I am at my best.

One recent, early Saturday morning, I was at a local garden center. Truthfully, I had considered not even going. Even that early, the stress and inevitable time-consciousness of the day already had started to permeate. But I had promised my younger daughter we would plant the vegetable garden that day . . .

As I walked through the greenhouse of vegetable plants, I caught the scent of something that reminded me of a place I had not thought about in decades: my grandparents’ backyard. The smell was a combination of tomato, basil, and fig. And suddenly I was back in the 1970s, in Jersey City, with my grandparents. I remembered how proud Poppy was of his little city backyard (a rarity in his neighborhood), complete with grass and a vegetable garden full of tomatoes and basil. And a fig tree, to represent Italy. I remember (truly like it was yesterday) how Nanny would pick a few basil leaves and tuck those away into the pocket of her housecoat – – to be used to spice up the “gravy” that was simmering away upstairs.

What I never noticed then was my grandparents’ contentment. These two first-generation Americans were living their dream, enjoying the backyard of the home they had worked so hard to afford.

So as I stood that Saturday morning, inhaling the smell of tomato and basil (and somehow a hint of fig?), I appreciated for the first time what it truly meant to “stop and smell the roses.” Yes, I always have understood that it meant to slow down and enjoy life. But what I failed to understand until then was that it also meant to enjoy life as the total sensory experience it was meant to be. And as I thought about it more, I realized that I was at my best in early morning not only because I was productive, but also because it is often the only time of day when I allow myself the luxury of appreciating the world around me – – as a full sensory experience.

We are a hustle culture. Task-oriented. Time focused. I even have chosen a profession that divides its day into 6-minute increments. And I do not say any of that as a criticism or complaint. Hustle is my life. And more often than I would care to admit, that life consists of hours, days, weeks, even months, where I rush ahead and never notice, never mind appreciate, the sights and the smells and the world around me.

So that Saturday morning at the garden center, I made a commitment to myself: to be more present in my own life. I vowed to make more time to just live in the moment, without worry about the past or anxiety for the future. On those days when I have been able to practice mindfulness (almost always in the early morning!), I am happier, calmer and more relaxed. I am at my best.

Of course, I still have days when I beat myself up over my past failings. And days when I cannot stop thinking about my goals of tomorrow. But I do try to give myself the gift of being content and grateful daily – even if only for a few minutes. The kind of contentment of two hard-working children of Italian immigrants, tending to their tomato and basil plants and answering their granddaughter’s questions about the importance of fig trees, while the gravy simmered on the stove upstairs.


I can smell the basil atop fresh tomatoes or maybe a stewing pot in your grandparents’ kitchen. Your writing is so expressive it brings me right along as if I’m there with you. Thank you for sharing!

Farm-grown tomatoes are part of my Tennessee heritage so I love the memory you’ve created. One of my friends gave me the most exquisite candle from Jo Malone several years ago – the fragrance is Green Tomato Vine and it is heavenly. I hoard it — only burn it on special occasions when I want some nostalgia… but I do love it, recommend it, yummmm… maybe today is a special occasion day. 🍅