Saran Gnoato, originally from Cambodia, grows tomatoes in her garden at home on Netop Drive in South Providence. The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo
Saturday, August 29, 2009
By Mark Reynolds
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — Saran Gnoato and her husband are an unlikely couple who came to Rhode Island from opposite sides of the world, overcoming war and cultural barriers to discover a mutual affection for a ripe, juicy, homegrown tomato.
The tomatoes they grow in the backyard of their Elmwood home from imported seeds have resisted the blight that has affected many tomato crops this summer. And they are big. Some weigh in at 2½ pounds.
The success the couple have had growing the fruit may have something to do with the place tomatoes have had in their lives.
Gnoato says that tomatoes make her happy, and she realizes now that what her mother and her grandmother told her when she was a little girl was quite true. They told her that a homegrown garden would help her “eat good and look good and see the flowers,” she says. She could do it herself and never need to worry about anything, they told her.
“It’s true,” she says. “I have a happy life. You can see. My husband comes home from work. We have a beautiful house and a great yard where everyone wants to be. You can see.”
Her adoring neighbors, quite aware of the tomato-growing talents next door, visit often. Gnoato, 53, sends them home each summer with thm home each summer with their hands full. Sometimes she even pushes her produce on strangers who pass by her Netop Drive home.
Gnoato’s family never bought vegetables from the market when she was growing up in western Cambodia in the ’60s.
Each morning when she headed off to school, she saw her mother and grandmother tending tomatoes and cucumbers and rosemary in the garden.
The tomatoes were her favorite. She relished the flavor and texture of the fruit’s skin.
This bucolic farming life came to a violent end in 1975 when the brutal regime of Pol Pot came to power. She was 19 years old when the Khmer Rouge took control of her neighborhood.
One of her older brothers, an army captain, was slain.
The Khmer Rouge corralled the family into a work camp, where she had to make do without fresh vegetables. The Khmer would dilute two or three cans of soup in a massive bowl of water to serve a large group of people. Death was everywhere, she recalls.
“They wanted to kill us,” she says.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, torture and overwork in the camps during Pol Pot’s four-year reign, which focused on creating a peasant society — the communist ideal in the view of the Khmer Rouge.
Visions of a happier, more-nourished existence crept into Gnoato’s mind whenever the work at the camp ceased and she had a chance to sit down, often on a hillside. In those moments, she told herself she didn’t need to be rich if she ever made it to a free country. No. She only needed good food.
She escaped with her parents and three siblings in the fall of 1979. They hiked into southern Thailand, where they were held in an internment camp near the Cambodian border.
A year later, the young woman arrived in Rhode Island. She was hired at Scuccato Corp., an East Providence jewelry manufacturer.
Despite her malformed fingers, a birth defect, she became an expert jewelry solderer, controlling a needle-like tool with a 3,000-degree flame. She churned out bracelets, necklaces and other pieces of jewelry.
Her future husband, Daniel Gnoato, a toolmaker, arrived from Italy on a Wednesday in 1984 and met her that Saturday at a wedding reception. He, too, loved tomatoes. But the subject didn’t come up early on.
In general, they didn’t say much to each other because he didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Italian. His sister didn’t like the idea of him dating a Cambodian, and her mother slapped her for going out on dates with someone she hadn’t married.
She says she worried for some time that marriage would require the sort of submissiveness that husbands frequently demand from wives in Cambodian culture.
The couple didn’t discover their mutual tomato love until about five years after they had met. By then, they were married and living on Netop Drive.
They planted their first crop on a St. Patrick’s Day.
He tilled an area in the yard and fertilized it with manure, moss and lime; she planted the seeds and watered religiously, often early in the morning.
But the tomatoes from that garden just weren’t up to snuff.
“They weren’t meaty enough,” says Daniel Gnoato, a 58-year-old machinist at Electric Boat in Quonset.
So about eight years ago, during a summer visit to see his family in Bassano del Grappa, Italy, they picked up some high-grade European seed. They planted the seeds the following March and harvested the new crop that summer.
The neighbors have been awestruck ever since.