Tomatoes are from Greece

February 7, 2008 at 5:20 am Leave a comment

Tomatoes are From Greece

            I used to regard tomatoes the way most people regard that little splash of parsley adorned on plates of food ordered at average road stop restaurants across the country: it was the semi-red thing to be picked out and pushed off to the side. I learned food politeness early on; the small smile, the “Oh, no thank you, I prefer_______instead.” Years ago, when I was in Greece, it was immediately obvious that there was no choice but to eat tomatoes as they were served with absolutely all meals, and that a Greek salad had nothing to do with my concept of a salad; no greens to speak of, all tomatoes, some olives and feta. I had to give the things another try.

There’s this exquisite moment of fresh, unexpected, almost shock in discovering an edible that is off the chart delicious. Conversation stops, almost the heartbeat stops, and the overload of one sense alerts the others to come into play: you halt, you lean back, you look again at what you are eating: How can that be so good? So then I decided the only good tomatoes on this planet came from Greece, until Bob started growing them in his backyard. He let me water the fat, loaded bushes when he left on a trip in the summer.  Happily, I supplied myself with squishy, plump and thick tomatoes, and took them home to adorn my kitchen with their redness until I ate them.

            This fall I got my supply of tomatoes from Steve, who retired, and retired with this declaration: “Do not retire until you have a passion to do something else.” His passion is growing his garden, and specifically, tomatoes. He let me have one, and that freeze came over me, so he then returned the next day with a huge bag of them for me, every size and dimension and color from tiny yellows to purples and big like softballs. He practically had them all named, and allowed me the 20 minute or so show on his laptop of each plant photographed in each direction. You can taste the love and pride in every bite. I let Maria, a 7-year-old girl I work with, have some of the little ones while we were chatting. We popped them into our mouths, one after the other, and when I saw her a couple of days later, she kept asking me for the “dulces.” I argued with her, as I would never give the children candies, then it dawned on me that she was referring to the tomatoes. A big revelation: a child begging for tomatoes so rich with sweetness she naturally confused them with candy.

            There were so many foods I decided early on at Maria’s impressionable age that I didn’t like at all, and for my entire life I avoided.  Such as melons, that I thought must have grown into those perfect round green and orange balls to be pushed around in bowls as I forked out the grapes. Melons I rediscovered in Mexico, sliced straight out of the entire fruit; wet, drippy, so sweet, I had no idea that it was at all related to the balls. Mangos fell out of the trees after the storms, and we ate them as we watched the rain fall, smiling stringy yellow smiles. For all that people say about the food in Mexico, the freshest, most flavorful of produce I discovered there, as though I was lead on a rebirth of fresh food introductions. I obliterated my negative judgments of many fruits and vegetables, and learned to sample them all, as they had no relation to my prior experiences.

            Jody managed to get me to try out my last hold out of learned food refusals from my childhood of Jolly Green Giant. Jody is the perfect cook. Like Steve who grows tomatoes like his children, she cooks with her heart and spirit. She is the “Food Whisperer,” and I’ll bet when no one is looking, she probably walks around Farmer’s Market listening for the produce to call out to her: “Hey, Jody! I’m the one you want, and get my friend over there, the celery root!” I think I’ve caught her putting her ear to the greens spread out over her counter. And that’s what she does: she makes an array around her, an edible pallet, and pauses, breathes, listens, and lets the food magic happens. When you eat her food, you feel it moving through you, and you immediately feel simultaneously energized and serene. I think I’m a pretty good cook, but when I follow her around at the market, it becomes clear: that lady is blessed. So, when the beets showed up at her house, I thought, oh, I can’t tell her that those things make me gag. But I told her, and I also told her I trust her magic, so I had her beets. And there it was, the frozen moment. Beets? She got me to eat them?

            Last week I thought I would try cooking them myself. I bought an assortment from Alex at the market. I took them home, sautéed them in honey and sake, a little salt, a little pepper, and there it was: even I could make them wonderful, though it’s not me; it’s the earth they grew out of, and how soon they came from the earth to me. It’s also encountering the person who had something to do with its growth, who took pride in their quality, and that is part of what nourishes me, too.

            My body? It knows. It was smart for all those years to pluck out the nasty flavorless forms that were only small semblances of what I was told was good for me. My body? My senses? They know. The frozen moment. Ah, stay here, this is right. Linger and enjoy. Get that produce from the source, shake the hand of the person who knows the food.




Entry filed under: daily life.

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