Friday, September 12, 2008

You say tomatoes, I say, "EW!"

I have always had a "thing" about tomatoes. I don't think that there was ever a time in my life when I didn't blanch even slightly at an unwanted tomato slice hiding under a bun, a horrifying little baby tomato in my salad. When I am eating out with John, all are duly removed and placed on his plate where he sometimes eats them and sometimes does not. If I am not with John, I remove the offending tomato(es) and place on a bread plate or the farthest region of my own plate. I have bitten into previously undetected tomatoes, sliced through that skin, that slimy gulp of bitter seeds and spit them immediately into napkins: I cannot abide them in my mouth. On more than one occasion, I have been tricked by an evilly deceptive grape tomato, mistaking it for its non-grotesque doppelganger, bitten in and, in a burst of unanticipated juice, nearly fainted. I have learned the hard way to not take chances on any dubious grapes.

Tomatoes gross me out, pure and simple.

I have had foodies outreach on their behalf to me, their hearts pure and full of missionary spirit, certain that I just haven't had the "right" tomato. I have had an organic farmer tick off a list of the most unusual tomatoes, describing them in the most darling, nurturing way like I just didn't understand her children. I have listened patiently, I think, and in my mind, I know they are right. But also in my mind, I see these tomatoes - plum, cherry, organic, fancifully named heirloom varieties, petite as berries, big and proud - and I think no, yuck, ew!, yikes, gross, shudder, absolutely not. I am not a picky eater - aside from that whole vegan thing, which really is just common sense, not pickiness - and I have always been a food lover. Ask my mom and she will tell you, full of a Jewish mother's first source of pride, "She was always a good eater." I was and I am. I'm just not a good eater of tomatoes.

I wonder sometimes if it is linked back to my father, a vision of him chewing on a tomato that is imprinted on my psyche permanently. He loved tomatoes, big wedges of that beefeater type, eaten with iceberg lettuce and Kraft Zesty Italian salad dressing. And he ate those tomatoes while bullying us at the dinner table, so it's possible I have just a deep psychological association. My brother has one, too, but his object of scorn is salad dressing, and with him, he knows that it is absolutely because of our father, seeing him red-faced with rage, screaming at someone or another, his mouth slathered with the viscous stuff. For whatever reason, this didn't affect me in the same way and I was able to see that this was him, not salad dressing. I enjoy salad dressing just fine and can't imagine eating my roughage without it.

My brother, however, cannot get over it. He will order salads with no dressing, not even on the side, not even oil and vinegar, though in recent years he has deigned to an accompanying lemon wedge. I have eaten out with him, and I see that even with servers who have heard every possible food neurosis, that this is a new one to them. They are intrigued, I have seen, time and time again. "No dressing?" they'll ask. "No, thank you." "Do you want it on the side?" "Nope." "Oil and vinegar?" "Nah." They all shrug and collect the menus, temporarily stupefied. Then my brother eats his naked salad as though it's the most normal thing in the world, refusing the acknowledge that the server and her colleague are watching from back by the kitchen, unable to fathom such bizarreness at table six. I have seen this happen, too. So maybe deep-seated and irrational phobias of specific foodstuffs run in the family. Thanks, Dad!

Anyway, the point of this all is to brag with how far I've come with my aversion. Even while I've been a raw tomato hater (and stewed, or any preparation in which they are mostly intact), I have been a cooked tomato lover. I love marinara, I love salsas both red and green, (this leads me to believe that my thing with tomatoes is not actually a phobia but a matter of personal taste) and I love the zestiness a spoonful of tomato paste adds to a sauce. When we were planning our garden this summer, John pushed for tomatoes. I was a little nervous, not knowing if I could handle it - holy mackerel, how neurotic I am - but I agreed. This would be a good test to see how far along I am with facing my fears. We already had a few plants vining on our stakes, and then one of John's clients, a kind of wacky and intense tomato farmer, gave us another plant. Again, I accepted this with a little apprehension.

The tomatoes, well, they have thrived in our little garden patch. In September, there are still a bunch ripening on the vine. Green, pink, red. Some time in August, I summoned my courage and started picking. I was going to make marinara from scratch. I went out there with our biggest colander and filled it up. A few days later, I gathered the courage to face the tomatoes again, this time for a little one-on-one interfacing prior to their journey toward marinara.

I gathered my recipe and supplies. A knife, a bunch of bowls, including one full of ice water, a cutting board, a yellow onion, lots of garlic, salt and pepper. I cut little 'x' marks in the tops and bottoms, and dipped them in boiling water before they were plunged into their final icy bath. That was not so bad, and was, in fact, kind of meditative in its mechanization. Still, I was holding tomatoes in my hands, raw ones, and there is something about the smell of a raw tomato that makes me lurch a little. That was a walk in the park next to skinning, seeding and coring them, though, which was like a vegan snuff film. I'm getting queasy now.

Oh, it was gory. One bowl for skins, seeds and innards, another bowl for the remains, I worked as quickly as I could, breathing out of my mouth to avoid the horrible seedy smell, but not being able to avoid the creepy, mealy feel of a skinned tomato in my hands. Clearly, I could never be a surgeon. I had to work as quickly as possible so not to quit. The onions and garlic were cooking in olive oil, and it was time. I chopped them up - and if there was a way I could have done it, I would have used two extra hands to cover my eyes - working quickly but trying to also make them small as possible so as to avoid the dreaded chunky marinara. Anyway, before too long, it was done and simmering on my stove top. I had to admit that it smelled lovely, and I felt proud filling Ball jars with the stuff a couple of hours later. The next day, we had the marinara on pasta with roasted vegetables, and I was quite pleased with myself.

Since then, I have gone through another round with the tomatoes that have confronted me in the garden and our CSA box, and, sadly, it wasn't much easier, but, gladly, the resultant marinara was still wonderful. There are another bunch in the refrigerator and more will arrive tomorrow from our organic farm, waiting for a date in my tall stock pot. I am gathering the courage again.

I would have thought that with all the tomatoes I have dispatched this summer that my family would be swimming in marinara all winter with Ball jars full looking so quaint and reassuring in our basement, but, after all the seeding and coring, it really doesn't amount to much. This makes me really respect the hard work behind marinara and I don't think that I will buy another jar without feeling some sort of deeper appreciation of it. The price we pay for good, organic marinara, $4.00 - $8.00 a jar or so, really is worth it. I will still probably continue making my own every summer.

Now if I could only get someone else to do the all dirty work.

Shalom, everyone.

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