Recently I’ve been working on curriculum for cookbook-memoir classes–one to be taught online, another for a local class at our food coop. This has me trolling for ideas among my notes from the “Meals and Memory” workshop for the Odyssey Project in 2009. “Salad Tamate” was a trifle I wrote for that class to demonstrate the “Facts, Memory, Meaning” structure, a simple organization for memoir essays.
Photo of Mary Joan Nastri’s Caprese Salad, prepared for the Meals & Memories workshop
The food I learned to detest at five years old became the food I craved at 21.
I grew up in Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. I started school in 1962. The public school wouldn’t take me in September at age 5 and 11/12ths, so my parents enrolled me in a parochial school. That is where the fateful Tomato Incident occurred.
Saint Richards didn’t provide lunch for its students, so, my mother bought me a red plaid lunch box and into it went various combinations she invented.
I loved the neat kit of it, the way the thermos fit under a little clip, the way the cup removed from the top of the thermos, piece nested into piece like Russian dolls.
But into that thermos one day my mother put tomato soup. And for whatever reason, I was sick to my stomach immediately after eating that soup for lunch. There in the hallway on the way back to class from our lunchroom, pink tomato puke spewed everywhere.
My teacher put me down in a crib to sleep it off in the quiet, darkened church nursery. I lay there, hot with shame they mistook for fever.
I was mortified to be in a crib again, a big school-aged girl like me. How is it I can remember that humiliation so strongly? I felt terrible from my head to my toes, not just in my uneasy stomach.
The day passed and others followed, each with its lunch box filled with ordinary or experimental combinations. I remember the hot dog floating in chicken soup in the thermos to keep it warm, its waiting bun resting in the sandwich cavity next door. But never tomato soup again.
Because after that, I refused to touch anything touched by tomato.
In Indiana it’s hard to avoid tomatoes in summer. The person who refuses tomatoes is an outsider, because tomatoes are an important Ancestral Food of the Hoosier. At almost every meal from late June through September you’ll find a big pile of corn (called “roastin’ears”) and next to that pile will be the heap of tomato slices, ready for salt and a dab of mayonnaise.
I am told they were all delicious. But I couldn’t think of eating one without the shame-tasting bile rising. And so I did without.
Until, that is, I came to be in France at 21, enjoying a last taste of college in a summer-study-abroad program.
I flew to France with ten sealed envelopes into which I had portioned my budget for living expenses for each week. I wanted to spend my capital having adventures, so I ate as cheaply as possible. Real restaurants were far beyond my budget. I would start my day with a café au lait and a chocolate croissant in the school cafeteria, dense with calories. For lunch, the cheapest food available was from the snack-bar at the gas station across from the classroom building.
And so every day for lunch, I would go and buy a hot dog there. It would be served on a crunchy baguette split lengthwise, the best the French could do for a spongy American hot dog bun. It was far more delicious.
And there, hungry for vegetables, my eye wandered toward the prepared servings of Salade Tamate. Bright disks of tomato were laid sideways like a domino-spill on a bed of greens, drizzled with vinaigrette, sprinkled with herbs. They were very like the appealing fruit pastries in the window of the bakery, each tomato sliced, fanned and dressed to please both eye and tongue.
On ice in their display case, they looked heavenly. Desire, not bile, rose in me. I had come a long way from the tomato soup that put me in the shameful nursery crib. I wanted those fresh bright vegetables and I would have them. For me, the vile-tomato spell was finally broken.
Over the years since I have tried to embrace the tomato. I am still choosy. Mealy pale globes are useless to me. A tomato must be like a good dinner companion; bright, tart, full of character, and eager for the company of others.
But when the tomato is ripe and right, I will eat it. Preferably knocked over on a bed of greens, drizzled with oil and vinegar, perhaps even interleaved with slices of mozzarella like a shuffled deck of cards.
And once in a blue moon I will take a plate full of bright red slices, sprinkle with salt, and slide a spoonful of pale ivory mayonnaise over them. I’ll eat tomatoes the way the Hoosiers do, enjoying at last the Ancestral Food of my People.