Delicacies from the Dregs: the Spirit of Life, Compost and Rebirth

by Karen Krolak
Artistic Director/Founder of Monkeyhouse and Faculty Member of Impulse Dance Center

Who would have ever guessed that your table scraps would keep my brother’s quirky spirit alive? As Bootstrap Compost geared up for their second Compost Week!, I thought they would appreciate knowing how my husband, Jason and I had used our first batch. After they read my email, they invited me to share my story with the larger Bootstrap community.

I grew up in a very eccentric family. My older brother, Patrick, was legendary among our friends for the obsessive way that he dove into subjects ranging from paranormal phenomenon (he contacted scientists at MIT about his theories on sonar problems in finding Loch Ness…when he was in the fifth grade) to physics to the plight of the American Chestnut. No one is sure why he decided to grow 75 heirloom tomato plants in the early months of 2012. He had never really shown any interest in the fruit before but according to his wife, he spent hours nurturing them and conversing with them as they grew to over 6 feet tall!

Original tomatoes from Patrick’s garden

On August 25, 2012, an SUV crossed the median of a highway in upstate New York and crashed into my parents’ convertible. My mother, father, and Patrick were instantly killed. At the time Jason, our mutt, Kwaq7aj’ (The 7 is silent and it is pronounced Quacks), and I were in the midst of moving. We were crashing at our dear friend, Nicole’s, apartment when the police arrived to notify us. May you never have to know the dizzying sense of being so fundamentally lost and shattered.

Over the next two weeks, my only remaining sibling and I were consumed with the grim tasks of contacting friends and family as well as planning memorials, funerals, and burials in Boston and Chicago. When we arrived at Patrick’s house in Illinois, his plants were producing a diverse spectrum of remarkable tomatoes. Their vibrant hues and odd shapes made me smile and reminded me of how Pat could sneak levity into the most solemn or saddest events. I packed up several different varieties in a plastic container and clung to the idea that we would plant them once we were able to move in to our new home.

I was heartbroken as the tomatoes began to rot in Nicole’s fridge while we waited for our mortgage to finalize. Unfortunate glitches prevented us from being able to purchase our lovely house until October 19. I send out oodles of gratitude to our realtor John Dean, our attorney Kevin Dwyer, our mortgage broker Kevin Greeley, our insurance agent Kevin Lackey, and our seller Joseph Abbondanza for miraculously negotiating out a solution just in time for my birthday. It was a phenomenal gift to simply be able to mourn in a space of our own.

First seedlings in the cup

I had never harvested my own seeds and as I sat there with tweezers sorting through the awful smelling Tupperware dish in February, things seemed doomed to failure. Jason and I planted what we could in orderly, well marked rows and threw the rest of the sour slop into a used plastic cup with some dirt. After three weeks of grow lights, diligent watering, and encouraging remarks, nothing grew in our rows of seeds. I had just about given up hope on the whole project when a sprout popped up in the cup. Shortly after I relocated it to a potting tray, I was startled to discover three more seedlings unfurling in the chaotic heap. By the end of March over 125 plants sprouted from that unmarked smorgasbord of seeds. It was impossible to tell which varieties were growing but it was obvious that they all had inherited Patrick’s unpredictability and zeal.

Potting tray of seedlings

We transplanted those baby tomatoes with the help of our first bucket of Bootstrap compost and sent them to friends and family members all over the country. Pat’s tomatoes are thriving in Maine, Massachusetts, and Missouri (Twelve little seedlings were even scanned by TSA when my aunt flew back to St Louis with an egg carton in her purse.) We kept 8 for ourselves and the first one fruited on my nephew’s birthday. As we have just observed the one year anniversary of the accident, I have remembered my mother’s advice to look for good things no matter how impossible life seems. I relish these ripe tomatoes and nibbling their sweetness with a generous pinch of smoked salt. Thanks for sharing the dregs of your dinners with Bootstrap. Your efforts have nourished me more than you will ever realize.

Patrick’s tomatoes on the vine in Missouri