Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Finest Meal Of The Summer

R.E.M.--"Crush With Eyeliner" (mp3)

Usually, while in Florida, there is a fruit and vegetable stand where I go to get whatever they have. It is a local place with local sources, so everything is very fresh, and they tend to have more “gourmet” items than our place back home in East Ridge.

So I set out yesterday morning to stock up, get some of their salad dressing, see what they had that I might can, but when I pulled into the empty parking lot with a sinking feeling, I saw the sign that read “Closed For The Season. Re-Open In October.”

I figured that left me with nothing but the same grocery store produce I could get back up in Tennessee, varieties of fruits and vegetables that have been engineered to withstand long journeys and a good shelf life. In other words, produce with thick skins that favored longevity over taste.

But then, as I was cruising past Target on my way home, I saw what looked like a produce stand. There was a pick-up truck and an umbrella and a gentleman who looked like an older version of Mario from Mario Cart. He had gray hair, a thick mustache, a pot belly, and, as I discovered when I got out of the car, a thick Italian accent. He really didn’t have much command of English at all.

When I got out of my car, I discovered that he had tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, watermelon, onions, limes, red bell peppers. All from somewhere down here. I could practically smell the tomatoes when I got out of the car, but there was a woman in front of me, an older woman, older than me, and to entice her, he brought out a bowl with chunks of his tomatoes and chunks of his cucumbers. He gave us each a taste. I died.

Outside of this truck in this nowhere town in Florida, is anyone letting tomatoes ripen on the vine long enough anymore? I tasted a tomato that I had not tasted since my youth. A cucumber that tasted of the sun. Adorned with nothing but salt.

I bought ample supplies of both and took them back to the condo and recreated that very meal. It was a strange hour, somewhere between lunch and supper, but when I took out the tomatoes and the cucumbers and they were still warm, I knew that I had to utilize them.

I sliced chunks of them in a bowl, chunks of ripe, red tomatoes and chunks of those sweet cucumbers. These days, I fear that when I cut into a cucumber, I will get a bitter one. I did not fear that in these cucumbers. Their skin was as dark green as a Texas watermelon. Their seeds were small and tender. I put them in a bowl with the tomatoes. I ground salt over them, and some pepper. I let the salt dissolve. And then I stood over the sink with a fork and ate the entire bowl of tomatoes and cucumbers. When they were gone, I tipped the bowl toward my mouth and drank the remaining juice. It was as red as a ruby, as red as blood. It was sweet, salty, earthy, primal. It was God.

Where did these tomatoes go? When I was young, my father would pull them from the gigantic vines in his garden. Have the needs of industry and grocery stores and the concession to time killed the flavor that should matter more than anything? Do we just accept the tomatoes that even in our local produce stands have been plucked when they are no more than 3/4ths ripe? I am guessing that most of you have never tasted the tomato that I have just eaten, even from your own garden. Up there, we don’t have the sun or the patience.

But I will tell you one thing. It was the finest meal of the summer.

So why the R.E.M.? Well, "she's a sad tomato." What can I say?

1 comment:

John said...

One of those Michael Pollan books, or maybe something like Fast Food Nation that I read years ago had a statistic that really stuck with me. In the 1940's, a grocery shopper regularly had available to him (in season, of course) over 2 dozen kinds of tomatoes, (today's "heirlooms") of all shapes, colors, sizes. Today, of course, it's generic round red slicers, romas, and maybe grapes.

One of the reasons that I've gone to growing only heirlooms in the last 6 years is that, despite their relative susceptibility to disease and, this year at least, their lower yield, nothing can compare to a vine ripened Cherokee Purple, Black Russian or Amish Paste.

For a great book on the topic , read this book by Barry Estabrook; almost like reading a good novel.

Great post, Bob.