How to Eat Tomatoes (or Why Food Tastes Good)

Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual "Tomatina" (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed - everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story - but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)
Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual “Tomatina” (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed – everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story – but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)

It’s a Southern thing and a summer thing. When the Big Boy tomatoes are so ripe they drip off the vines in huge, red globes, you pick ‘em. Leave them out on the counter. God forbid, don’t refrigerate them; it saps the flavor. They sit for maybe a day until you get some nice white bread at the store. Not artisan or crusty, but just a plain simple loaf, not too soft. But this isn’t life or death, because you’re going to toast that bread anyway. Slice the tomatoes with a long serrated knife, not too thick and not too thin. There will be lots of juice on the cutting board so protect your slices from the expanding puddle because you don’t want soggy bread. No.

Now, toast two slices of bread so they’re suntan kissed and not too crispy. Crispy in a nice way so you have something to hold onto. Get the mayo from the fridge. Not light mayo, or fat-free, or Miracle Whip. God no. Real mayo. Make it yourself if you have to (just egg yolks, oil and a little lemon juice and water and you’re done). In the fridge at my mom’s house there is a lone jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. It’s a brand from her childhood in North Carolina and is perfect for recreating the best sandwich ever. So use Duke’s. Or use homemade. Or use Hellman’s. Slather it on, not too thick or thin. More than a schmear but less than a dollop. You should be able to make small waves back and forth across the bread with your knife, small waves in your poor man’s hollandaise.

Get those tomato slices. They’re ready to go on your bread on one side. One side only. Two sides and you have a mess and don’t know which side to flip first. Put the slices on, overlapping slightly, kissing each other’s sides. Cover your bread slice with them. Don’t skimp but give them some breathing room. Don’t crowd. Maybe you fit three slices neatly. Maybe four, if you’re lucky. Overload and you ruin the ratio. Underload and you’re eating toast.

Now this next step is important and I don’t care about your blood pressure or what the news says or what your doc told you. You already have that real rich mayo on the bread, so let it go. Get a pepper mill and some Kosher salt, flaked and ready to melt. Crack the pepper over your tomatoes in repose and sprinkle a good pinch, a full pinch, a full teaspoon on those red juicy-sweet circles. You can almost never put too much salt because the sweet tomatoes of summer are always sweeter than you think they’ll be and just like baking, you need salt to balance it all out against your taste buds. You do. Believe me. Don’t be afraid and pile it on, evenly across. When it melts into the room temperature slices, you’re ready. Fold the empty bread slice on top of your seasoned tomato half and press lightly to firm the flavors together. The unguent mayo and briny, sharp spice against sweet sunshine of tomatoes and toasted yeastiness of bread. Take your serrated knife, hold down the sandwich and cut a neat swath through it all to make two halves. Find an old white plate or your grandma’s china and place your lunch on it.

You can get fancy with a little green lettuce leaf on there or a tiny sliver of sweet Vidalia onion. But I say no, eat it now as is. It takes practice but if you’ve toasted the bread right, and put mayo on the smoothed, even way, and loaded just enough tomato onto the whole thing—it will be perfect and not squeeze out to attack you like some sandwiches. The juices will hold, the mayo an oily shield reinforced by firm toast, and the tomatoes and their juices caught in between for your benefit. Enjoy. Eat that other half and I dare you not to go out to your garden or back porch again and pick another Big Boy and slice him up for a second round. These are addictive.

I hear some people eat summer tomatoes like apples, they’re so sweet. I’ve never. But I will slice them and put them on top of anything that will take them. Or a salad. Not the leafy kind. Slice that tomato and slice those sweet Vidalias and a crisp watery cucumber. Same sizes if you can. Thin, thin slivers of onion. No one likes to eat a stinging raw chunk of onion. Find a bowl big enough to use a hand or spoon to mix without making a mess. You’re gonna use that bowl to serve from so make sure it’s pretty enough for the table. Or don’t. No one will care once they start eating. Pile in your slices and sprinkle them with Kosher salt, liberally. Liberal, left and left again. Over further to the left. Don’t be stingy. And pepper again.

Now in your pantry somewhere might be a very old bottle of vinegar: apple cider, red wine, sherry wine, balsamic. Maybe you have rice wine vinegar. Your luck if you do! Use it finally. In a separate small bowl, mix some vinegar and plain veggie oil (a tablespoon or so) and sugar. Yes, sugar. White and granulated. Not a ton and not Splenda. No honey or maple syrup. You just want sweetness, not flavor. Mix together so they dissolve and combine, emulsify. Pour that over the tomatoes, onions, and cukes. Toss ‘em up together and very important, let them sit. Don’t fool with it and don’t serve it right away. They need to marinate and mingle or else you just get each thing, alone together and nothing special. Pop it in the fridge if you want, for at least an hour or so. But please, take it out at least another hour before you eat. Room temperature is how foods are meant to be eaten if you really want to taste them. This “salad” is the perfect side dish for barbecued chicken or burgers or steak or hot dog. And maybe the kids will eat it. Tell them there’s sugar in it; that might work.

Then go back outside and pick more Big Boys and see if you can find new small, yellow flowers because you’re gonna need more tomatoes. Stat. A few Big Boys could make a very good tomato pie. Or a huge batch of Sunday sauce. Or another sandwich. Or be eaten out of hand. I hear some people do the same with sweet Vidalias.

Maybe that’s a Southern thing, like black-eyed peas and collard greens and pig on New Year’s Day for luck. Or like succotash. Succotash. I love that word. It’s native and old colonial. It’s part sweet corn kernels, other veggies optional, and of course, lima beans. You have to have lima beans. And maybe lard. I envision an old Virginia wife at her deep cooking fireplace with an iron pot hanging over the coals and a wise Native American woman with kind, calloused hands offering her these things: corn, shell beans. The lady’s garden is string beans from England and carrots. She makes do and we enjoy succotash. Corn kernels broken off the cob. Battered. Suffering. Which it turns out, after all, is not just a Southern thing.

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Toad, Interrupted

IMG_20151001_112602It had started raining in the afternoon and by the time we went to sleep, it was coming down steadily. When I woke the next morning, there were puddles in our front yard and the rain was still coming down. I walked downstairs to my basement office. The window was open and water covered the sill where the rain had been streaming in all night.

Damn!

I grabbed a towel from the laundry room and wiped the sill dry. I started cranking the window closed as the rain kept coming.

Crank, crank. Squeak!

I stopped. I cranked one time slowly.

Squeak!

The sun wasn’t up yet, but it didn’t matter in the deep basement window well where it was always shadowed. I turned on the light. I looked into the well at the rocks. Nothing. I scanned the walls. Then I looked into the corner of the casement window, where the hinge mechanism opens and closes. In the tight angle between window and sill — made tighter by my cranking — sat Toad.

I almost squished him to death.

I was horrified but he just stared at me, as if to say “Death. Humph. What’s the big deal?”

I took off the screen, plucked Toad off and sat him on the rocks. He didn’t hop away. He didn’t croak — literally or figuratively.

My husband is worried about Toad.

“You should put him outside, somewhere out of that basement window well.”

“Why?” I said. “I think that’s his home.”

“Well,  maybe. But it’s weird that he just lives down there alone with nothing but rocks.”

I agree. It does seem odd. Is he lost down there? Cut off from his toad relatives and friends and potential mates by some awful twist of fate that stranded him at the bottom of our lunar-like basement window well? He seems perfectly content. I think. I don’t really know what toads think, especially my Toad. So, every morning now, I check on Toad. He’s amazingly hard to find, just sitting there alone with a bunch of rocks. But he is always hidden in plain sight, right below my window. This morning, I took a picture of him. Who says toads are ugly? I think he (or she) is beautiful.

Yet, I still can’t help wonder whether he is a toad interrupted. If his presence outside my window is some kind of toad exile, a parallel toad universe where humans provide nice places to sit on open windows when it rains and develop a sixth sense for not squishing them accidentally.

Yes, I’ll keep checking on Toad.

Toad and I Are Friends

From Frog and Toad Are Friends, by Arnold Lobel

I settled down on my bolster, folding my legs into each other and resting my hands on my thighs. My eyes were tired with sleep and pollen and a wakeful night. I closed my eyes. I breathed in and out. In and out.

Then, like a stunned rabbit, I felt the urge to jump out of my seat.

And do what?

I don’t know, but whatever it was, it would be better, I thought, than sitting here. I breathed in and out and my sleepy eyes closed.

I am doing this, I said to myself. I will meditate this morning!

The intermittent sound of tractor trailers and cars and birds and crickets drifted into my open window. My mind drifted on the sound.

And then I started making my grocery list, and chore list, and “forgot to call/email/talk” list. I drifted away on my lists.

I twitched and wiggled. I sat up straighter, aiming the crown of my head upward. I relaxed.

I was sitting now.

Then my ears picked up a rustling of rocks and gravel, so close it must be coming from my basement window well. It got louder. It stopped. It started again. I cracked open my eyes. I closed them. The rustling continued in the early morning half-light.

“What the hell is that?”

“A raccoon? A snake?”

I cracked my eyes open again.

“Oh crap! I bet it’s a damn raccoon getting in our garbage can. Or maybe more mice living near our foundation.”

I squeezed them shut.

“Stay. Here.”

The rocks knocked against each other again and I imagined whatever it was scratching its way through the window screen and getting into our house. I was verging on panic.

“STAY!”

Like a tiny, not-quite-trained puppy.

I sat and listened to the creature. My timer went off — 10 whole minutes subjecting myself to sitting. I went to the window immediately. Spiderwebs and rocks and not much else. Then I heard the rocks knocking together again. I followed the sound to a large brownish rock amidst the piles; it moved. My raccoon, my snake, my mice, my monster — was a toad. A beautifully camouflaged toad.

I laughed at myself and my fearful mind. I smiled at the toad.

I like to think he smiled back.

Don’t Remind Me

I rolled over and turned on the light 10 minutes after I had turned it off. My left eye was swollen and oozing and felt like a grain of sand was lodged in its corner. I grabbed the book off the bedside table and left my husband sleeping.

I hadn’t read a book like this, gotten into a book like this, in a long time. It wanted me to finish it and I had nothing else to do. Sleep wasn’t coming. No one needed me, except this book. I hunched over it at the kitchen table, reading to the end and midnight. I still didn’t want to go to sleep.

Today, I logged onto Facebook and a series of algorithms started popping off, calculating what day it was, what year. They were so proud of their power to show me my memories posted from two years ago! It was a photo of my brother—slimmed down and looking almost like he had as a high school football player—dead since August 2013; I was thanking friends and others for their support in the post.

I imagine that the people/machines at Facebook think memories are a good thing to relive. Personally, I don’t want to take a trip down memory lane right now to revisit my brother’s suicide death. When a friend mentioned what I tough time I was probably having right now (right now being the day we’d left for a family beach vacation and also the anniversary of his death), I was shocked. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Read more: http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/2/8315897/facebook-on-this-day-nostalgia-app-bringing-back-painful-memories

I’ve been pretty busy lately, nursing a very sick kid for a week, then preparing for a week away, and now being sick myself. It’s been a busy summer; busier than I wanted. Call me selfish or self-absorbed. I don’t mind. The early wet, cool days on the lakes are now hot and humid. Cicadas serenade us, madly rubbing their bodies. It’s the sound track of my childhood summers; it’s the sound track of memories that I’ve been trying to forget.

I don’t care much about marking my brother’s death each year. His death, frankly, is meaningless. It was his life that mattered. The problem is that I don’t know his life. The book I finished that night? I had to get to the end. It was about a woman remembering and reclaiming her memories, and who she was, in order to move forward. For herself. For her children. And she had to do this alone: she had lost the boundaries of her life defined by her mother and father, her lover, her friend. She was alone with herself, defining what that meant. Those people, she realized, were not who she thought they were, and neither was she. I am finally realizing many of the same things, and it’s like scraping your skin off slowly with a butter knife.

I scrounge my memories some nights when I can’t sleep, conjuring images of my brother and I. Maybe they’re memories, or maybe they’re things I’ve been told. They merge in our brains and become one. I’ve been told so many things.

When I finished the book, I cried. My swollen eye was worthless; the kitchen was swimming underwater. I never came up with a memory. I never plucked one out and said, Aha! Yes! This is what it was like. This was him. I sat there, a floor below my sleeping boys, thinking that I was all I had. I was what was left of my brother. My present was the whole: my now, my past and my future. He was here, even if I couldn’t pin a memory on him. He was with me and my children. Present tense.

Maybe this is what religious people feel about angels in Heaven. Or others about good people being reincarnated as higher beings, gods. For me, it’s a simple coping mechanism, because the truth is just too bitter a pill.

After I was cried out, I settled in bed. I felt calmer because he was with me, like all good big brothers are.

On A Casse-roll

Don't separate

It is too individualistic, the main dish side dish mantra.

There is no non-duality in not touching greens to beans,

Meat to potatoes.

If you, children, can’t see the entire universe in your bowl,

Then you are not eating the casserole.

Just this morning, about nine, I filled my bowl with everything.

With the energy of burned out stars and manure from the dairy farm down the road.

Healthy way to start my day: shredded wheat and raisins and milk and toasted almonds.

Banana chunks for good luck.

I ate it all. The cows in the milk, the corn silage in the cow.

The sun and water and petroleum in the raisins, the wheat, the farmer.

Now, tell me why those things cannot touch on your plate,

Can’t inter-be, interrelate?

You may have your reasons, but I won’t enable.

I won’t buy dishes with spaces for you to separate.

Part 1: Navigator’s Plight

The last night under the floor boards of the Dutch fly boat, the swooning “Half Moon,” F. Van Cortlandt curled into that small round version of himself known to everyone else on board, especially to his commander Hendrick Hudson, and hoped to die. The water sloshed around his buckled boots and seeped into his matted fur. He sniffed and gagged on the air; his body was molding like forgotten potatoes in a damp Low Country cellar.

A dirty oil lamp swung back and forth over his head, moving in time with the black waves outside. Sound vibrations were dampened in the hold; the other sailors might be there sleeping or drunk or dead. But then, out of the muffled dark, F. Cortlandt’s head thrust up into the moldy air as concussion boomed overhead, like a crack of lightning or a cannonball crashing into a thousand wooden houses.

Seconds later, the huge ragged end of half of the ship’s upper topsail punctures the deck, opening a hole to the heavens and ending right in front of F. Cortlandt’s tiny pink quivering nose. He sniffs small sniffs, collecting himself and his dripping nose. Then, a squat, square whiskered face — familiar black beaded eyes and pointed cap — appears in the hole in the deck, squeezing around what’s left of the wet, wooden mast.

“Get yer lazy naught good selves from ‘neath the hold and up here!” he says, long front teeth glaring in the moonlight. “Nay, ye do not have all night and yer leisure to set about!”

F. Cortlandt looks around the hold, trying to make out shapes and forms, realizing finally that he is, most unfortunately, alone. And that Commander Hudson expects him to mount the remaining masts and guide what is left of this forsaken, precious “‘Half Moon” from the heaving Atlantic into a bay that no one knows, to the farthest west he or anyone has ever been.

5 Reasons Never to Shave Again

Cost analysis featured in The Compass, a style journal by Black Lapel. Money: apparently something only men care about.

1. You’re going to be damn glad for the extra layer of warmth between your skin and the frigid insides of your clothes in February when it hits a high of -10 degrees F.

2. You were born pretty much hairless, then you grew up. You grew hair. Your mom cried during your first ever Big Girl haircut. Every long straight strand and dark curly is a mark of your maturity, your wisdom. Own it. I don’t want to be 12 again, and I don’t think you want me to look like I am either.

3. You know who else I don’t look like? Barbie. Or a department store mannequin. I bet they get freakin’ cold in there when it’s February and the heat goes on the fritz in Cruise Wear.

4. I know. It’s embarrassing the first time you show up to open swim at your local YMCA in late February with your kids and remember that you haven’t shaved ANYWHERE on your body in about three months. Armpits. Bikini. Legs. But then you remember that you’re a 38-year old mom, and that no one looks at you anymore, especially the 17-year old male lifeguard and his friend. You cavort in the nearly 70-degree pool and praise God for your hairy body when you have to go back outside.

5. Women’s.Razors.Suck. And are ridiculously expensive. Why is it again that women need special razors to shave their body hair? Oh yes. My soft, curvy curves. I’m not all angles, dammit! Riddle me this: When you haven’t shaved in three months and you want to jump back in, how many passes do you think you have to make with those awful pink petal quadruple blade femmy-razors? Several. How many passes do you have to make with the husband’s old fashioned single blade safety razor? One. Uno. Oh, and need a new blade? Just change it out from your pack of a billion you bought on Amazon for $12.

6. I know, this is a sixth reason. If you’re still reading, then you probably need to read this one. Shaving is a personal thing, I know. But I’ve been a card-carrying shaver and plucker of hair since I was about 13. I’m tired. For me, it’s just one more responsibility I’ve shouldered for a long while, like birth control pills. My period keeps coming back, just like all that hair. What’s the point? Looking sexy? Young? Clean? Feeling smooth? Being desirable? Funny thing, my husband has never, ever suggested to me—not even once— that I needed to shave my this, that, or the other. We did, on the other hand, agree about the vasectomy. And his losing the beard.

Luscious

“Oh, this iced coffee is luscious,” she said.

She sipped. A bead of water slipped down the sweating glass onto the table.

“You’re luscious,” he said, smiling and squinting against the sun.

Later, she judged the time of her son’s conception by the sundial shadow of their bodies.

Saying No

I posted last night and this morning I finally realized why people like social media. I saw a few Likes and Follows, and poked around on other blogs (not something I generally do, unless its got recipes). Then it jumped out at me: the sense of not being alone in a struggle that, frankly, I feel most of the time is kind of arrogant and selfish. Screw it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

I love The Sun Magazine. If you’ve never read it, you should. It’s got interviews, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography and a section called Readers Write. The magazine asks readers to write about topics on which they are the only authority; I assume this means life. Then you submit to the magazine and maybe it gets published. Maybe not. Writing for The Sun would be awesome. Until then, I decided that the Readers Write topics are great prompts (a.k.a, kicks in the ass). I wrote this one — on the topic ‘Saying No’ — intending to send for the May 1 deadline and missed it. But, I wrote it so I’m going to let it breathe.


Saying No

I held the phone to my ear until the line went dead. My weight sagged against the door frame of our back door; outside, the day was going on like it had before the call. Sunny and hot. The start of the end of summer.

I needed to get outside. I opened the back door then slammed it shut. I went into the cool of the garage and paced. I balled my fists and pounded them on top of my car as hard as I could.

“NoNoNoNoNoNo!” I screamed. “Fuck you!”

I pounded again, then sobbing silently and half to myself, “No.”

I slid down onto my heels. I pressed my palms into my eyes until kaleidoscopes burst inside my eyelids.

It was the start of the end of summer and my brother had hung himself.

Later, I decided never to take my wedding rings off again. I stared blankly at walls and could not muster the energy to eat or take showers. But my children, my husband—they had to eat. The living are needy.

I started saying “no.” After 37 years of fearing the wrath of inactivity, the scarlet letter of laziness — I put my “yes” on the shelf. I used it only in case of emergencies.

Yes, eat breakfast. Yes, read your son a book before bedtime. Yes, pee. Yes, do nothing.

Friends materialized at my door with fresh honey from backyard hives. It was sweeter than anything I’d ever tasted. They came and took my children away to play. They told me about their brother who had killed himself.

Months went by. I turned down writing assignments because nothing was important, not like it had been. It had been urgent to grab every opportunity for achievement. It had been important to do something with my life. Now, my life narrowed to a pinpoint.

The world went on around me, sunny and hot. I did not sleep much. I had a brutal imagination; when I closed my eyes, I’d see my brother’s body swinging, bloated and broken, from a hundred-year old tree branch.

Eventually, I stopped saying “no.” I ate. I worked. I dove back into doing, hoping I might drown in it because simply being was too hard.

My dead brother agreed, nodding silently beside me.

Blogging: Easier Than Writing

Hey, you know what’s easier than writing a short story? Writing a blog post! True. Even if said blog has been filled with virtual cobwebs for the past several years and no one reads it. Even then! Easier.

You know what else is easier than writing a short story that may or may not ever see the light of day? Writing a book! Yes! You heard me. A real-life book that a publisher approached you to write, and even though it’s maybe not the book you ever envisioned writing — BOOM! — there it is. Deadlines, then a year later, a book you can hold in your hand with your name on it. Miraculous! People are asking you to sign books for them at special events just for you! What the what?? Yup. Easy.

Easy compared to baring your partially formed soul through words that somehow have to be strung together to makes sense and evoke emotion and smells and sensations — in other people. Of course they evoke these in me, the writer. But I must somehow work Magic and Witchery and make YOU believe and feel and not say,”No one would ever say that if that happened!”

For me, it is hard. Hard because I’ve never really let myself write uncensored and sucky. And you have to write uncensored and sucky to WRITE ANYTHING WORTHWHILE. Even a freakin’ grocery list.

Speaking of groceries, there are also a lot of other things I could be doing besides writing. Like right now, I could be watching a riveting documentary on PBS about The Roosevelts. I could be snuggling with my husband on the couch talking about my day. (Kidding. Now that is something no one would ever say.) I could be writing a grocery list for tomorrow. Or, I could be scrolling Facebook, feeling more dejected with each post about her losing weight and feeling awesome, her finishing her 5th marathon after her 3rd kid, or her posting pictures of her new book cover. Wait. That’s me.

During the day, this chronic inability to immerse myself in a fictional world doesn’t seem so bad. I have things to do, remember? Kids, lunches, laundry, dentist appointments, oil changes, dinner. But lately, when the sky and the lake turn that amazing deep periwinkle as the sun is extinguished behind the ridge to our west, it breaks my heart.