I’ve been missing in action for the last month as I’ve traveled extensively for conferences (why does everyone plan everything in March?!?) and a few stories I’ve been writing. I’ve also been participating in a Cook ‘n Scribble food writing course, led by journalist and cookbook author Molly O’Neill, which has been much more challenging and rewarding than I’d expected.
One of our assignments was to write about a food that changed our lives. There are many foods and meals I could have written about, but I was drawn to a story about my grandfather giving me my first summer tomato. It’s a story I cherish about people I loved dearly and lost long ago, and ultimately is a large part of the story of how I started writing about food.
I know I’ll remember this story often as we head into this summer’s tomato season.
Heaven from the vine
One warm summer morning when I was five, my grandfather offered me a taste from his garden. I was playing on the swing set, pumping my legs as hard as I could to make my swing soar higher. I reluctantly dismounted and skipped over to him, the earthy scent of the tomatoes enveloping me as I grew closer.
A retired construction foreman, my grandfather was not one to fuss over things. When there was a job to do, he took care of it and moved on to the next task. But, the garden was different. He would spend hours weeding, watering and rigging shade to protect the plants from the punishing Texas sun.
I’d seen him babying the plants all summer and now he was plucking vibrant red tomatoes from the vines. I watched as he gently polished one of the gems with his bandana. He pulled his trusted pocketknife from his faded overalls and cut off a wedge of tomato. Red juice trickled down his weathered fingers. “Taste this,” he said. “It’s heaven.”
The fruit burst in my mouth — sunshine and rain, earth and love. Then, a tart, acidy bite tickled my tongue as a stream of cool juice made its way down my chin, dribbling on my t-shirt.
“I think you need another bite,” chuckled my grandfather. He knew in that moment he had taught me more than to love tomatoes. He had shown me that food can excite as well as nourish, and that there is nothing quite like the joy of savoring something when it is perfectly ripe straight from the garden.
My family did not typically celebrate food. My grandparents were raised during the Depression and endured the food rationing during World War II. They were Panhandle people – hardworking, pull yourselves up by the bootstraps folks who made do with what they had. Food was fuel, not a luxury. Having a garden was a necessity for most of their lives to ensure that they had fresh food on the table.
In the early 1970’s, with the Furr’s grocery store he helped build just around the corner, my grandfather continued to garden because he loved it, not because he had to. And, he loved the tomatoes most of all. He would stack them gently in a small, unpainted basket and bring them into the kitchen, presenting them to my grandmother like the crown jewels.
My grandmother cooked simply, making everything from scratch and refusing the cans and convenience foods that were gaining popularity. She knew to make the tomatoes the star of their own plate and served them sliced, sprinkled with salt, not as a hidden ingredient in a salad or side dish.
Somewhere during my adolescence, I lost part of what my grandfather taught me about food, maybe it was when he died when I was fourteen. I never forgot that food could excite and, indeed, as I tried to leave the chicken fried food of my youth behind me, I explored the exotic cuisines of the world with vigor as I taught myself to cook. I pored over recipes and took cooking classes. I made elaborate meals and eagerly tried new dishes, but I was missing something.
Shortly after the Downtown Austin Farmers Market opened in 2003, I spent a Saturday morning poking around the stalls that were packed with zucchini, cucumbers, okra, berries and tomatoes – gorgeous, red and plump like the ones from my grandfather’s garden. I spent the last of my cash buying a basket of Early Girl tomatoes and gingerly wedged them into an already overflowing shopping bag.
That evening, I made dinner for my friends David and Beverly who were visiting from Chicago and served the tomatoes as my grandparents had – sliced and sprinkled with salt. My guests greedily piled tomatoes on their plates and then went back for seconds. Beverly gushed, “There may not be anything more perfect than a summer tomato.”
Her comment took me back to that day in my grandparent’s backyard and I realized that enjoying food in its time and place was the important piece of the lesson I had forgotten. I had lost the joy of the summer tomato.
After that dinner, I began paying attention to not only what I was eating, but when I was eating it. I started buying most of my produce from the farmers market and, more importantly, I started writing about it. My life hasn’t been the same since. That little slice of tomato led me to food writing, and I could not be more grateful.