19 July 2010

a tomato-set of words from february, now with in season visuals.

Tomato Coveter, Nouveau 
by Jennifer Hetrick

For 23 years, I firmly avoided letting my tongue touch the taut, sun-kissed red skin and gush-filled bite that is a tomato.

I hesitated, my taste buds recoiling when my mother held a salted half-slice of the cherry variety in her fingers only inches away from my face.

We sat at the kitchen table, with her telling me, “Try it! Just try it.”

Although our picky eating habits often overlapped, she had an avid fondness for tomatoes while I simply did not. Once or twice, I licked the wet and soft-seeded layer of a cut piece of the quasi-fruit, the vined vegetable. But the flavor did not suit me as a child, and I felt helpless to keep my distance, never allowing one to grace my plate.

My mother’s main meal, while out to dinner, generally consisted of a cheeseburger and fries. No other toppings—no lettuce, onions, pickles, mustard, or sauces. But she would nod her head yes in asking for a tomato to take a seat between the bun and the rest of the business. No ketchup either.  I volunteered for the role of ketchup dipper when the fries needed eating.

Throughout her entire life, my mother also refused to eat pizza because her first episode with it involved a mean case of trickery. In the early 1940s, before pizza had taken the U.S. fully by storm, her neighbors invited her to their house for one of her favorite sweets—cherry pie. Little did she know that in fact, something called pizza was the culprit fooling her in that initial chomp. The neighbors buzzed with laughter while her young face squirmed in pure dislike.

Me, I do eat pizza, but only if the sauce is not too heavy or reminiscent of sugar.

In the past few years, I raised tomatoes in my modest townhome garden, outlined in a c-shaped paver wall with the soil sloping down at one side to meet the blotchy grass of my backyard. I’d stretch the hose as far as I could toward each wriggling stem, spraying water to the roots from a short distance.

Some days, I’d come home from work, noticing the wilting demeanor the leaves had taken on in my absence, and I knew I was a bad plant-mother. Water does much for a quick reprieve though in scenes of vanity and the green.

As the seasons passed, with each new summer greeting the market pack of nine tomatoes I’d bring home, and the stalks reaching skyward almost as tall as me, I began to envy the idea of what it must like to enjoy such an aesthetic, ripe vegetable. They looked as if they’d taste nothing short of phenomenal. With caution, I licked yet another slice of tomato again but felt nothing.

I wanted to be able to say what I’d grown was delicious. But instead, I tried to just be grateful that I was at least evolving toward admiring tomatoes somewhat from a previous perch of nadda.

At the age of 24, I tried again. It began with caprese at an Italian restaurant. I dared to absorb the mingling essences of my endeared mozzarella (the words “cheese” and “no” do not occur in my voiced sentences), cuts of basil, drizzles of olive oil or balsamic vinaigrette, and slice after slice of rounded tomatoes. But this time, my taste buds whirled.

Success—the flavor of something as basic as a tomato finally made sense to me with gratitude due to the taste-thick combination of that fresh, earthy dish.  This kind of relief is practically impossible to appreciate unless you can deem yourself a picky eater from birth.

Soon, it will be four years since my mother ate her last tomato. It will be four years since the earth pulled her away from us and into an imperfect powder form via a crematorium owned by Ruggiero Funeral Home on Collegeville’s main street.

I hate that they burned her.

I feel guilty when I look into a black kitchen pot on my stove, seeing that I’ve burned the skin of tomatoes in my attempts at crafting a basil-fresh soup during the crisp and chilled days of the last season she knew before she signed into the hospital, not making her final exit on foot.

But life is about burning sometimes, and if not that, then tomatoes.

I can’t tell her that I now eat the one vegetable she loved so much while she pinched facial expressions at most vitamin-rich greens. Nonetheless, I feel better knowing I do, with how much she craved them weekly despite the fussy nature of her palate. How ecstatic I become knowing my rarely devoured cheeseburgers will don cuts of a single tomato is something I can only hope she senses in the glee of my shifting palate, bite by new bite.

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