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February 9, 2015

Tomatoes and Cucumbers

These days it must seem a luxury to have a garden, to have enough land to plant and harvest your own vegetables, fruits and berries, but it was not always that way. Not long ago, it was a necessity. Stores and markets were only for those foodstuffs that you could not grow yourself. If you have an historical bent, and it is focused more on the people and how they lived rather than the big events, this will not be a surprise.

Subsistence gardens were the norm even in the depths of cities. Less than 100 years ago, livestock was found in urban environments with cows, pigs and chickens being raised in Boston, New York City etc. There are still vestiges of this in the community gardens and victory gardens often found in these cities.

The very idea of buying produce that one could grow was antithetical to the values of those times. Household economists avoided purchasing in favor of cultivating. But as we became an industrial, then a service, and now an information economy, we have drifted further and further away from the earth. Our fruits and vegetables come from the supermarket with identifying stickers so that the cashiers don't need to identify the unfamiliar, our meat is packaged in plastic, our foods created in huge vats in factories to save us the effort of even having to look at the uncomfortably organic shapes.

So many things now are cookie-cutter; standardized, sanitized, de-scented, bleached, colored, sorted, all to achieve a kind of homogeneity that is not found in nature. Consistency trumps flavor. Sameness is king. There is a new luxury today, and it is an expensive one. It costs us money, health, and pleasure. It is the luxury of disgust. As corporate farmers and food processors divorce us from our roots, they remove the knowledge of that which sustains our life and substitute a horror of dirt and of nature. The very idea that a caterpillar may have once crawled over the surface of a tomato repulses people. A bird landing on an apple tree makes many people reject the fruit. They should be more concerned when animals refuse to share the food.

My neighbor was a sweet lady. She and I occasionally traded produce. Until her death a few years ago, she was still active, vital, and to my great benefit, an avid gardener. We both eschew chemical fertilizers and insecticides, so neither of us hesitated about eating the food fresh of the vine or bush. What a delight. She appeared at my door one day with four large and gorgeous yellow pattypan squash, and four thin and warty cucumbers. After selfishly slicing a cucumber, adding just a pinch of salt and treating myself to an alfresco lunch on the back porch, I gathered a quart of ripe blueberries for her and left them on her doorstep.

These days many folks think that cucumbers are there merely for texture. They douse them with processed salad dressing to the point that one can no longer taste the vegetable. That is no great loss since the cucumbers one buys from the supermarket are tasteless to begin with. But those from a sun-warmed garden, inconsistent in shape, with warts and mottled skin, do have flavor, one that you should not ruin by the violence of modified starches and ersatz "natural flavors" of a supermarket salad dressing.

Perhaps I've been spoiled. I lived in Southern Italy when I was younger. Gardens abounded. Refrigerators were few. You harvested the food for the day, or bought food that had been grown within a few miles. The travesty we know here as Italian salad dressing was nowhere to be found.

To make an Italian salad, one rinsed the leaves of the lettuce to remove the sand and any remaining insect life. You tore the leaves into the proper size, removing areas of brown where some creature had enjoyed a bit of it before you, and made one or two additions; perhaps some olives, some other greens, a slice or two of radish. To dress it was simple. A glug of olive oil a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Just enough additional flavor to enhance, rather than disguise the green, crisp, and slightly bitter leaves. Here, in the US, a salad is most often a mess of sugary glop with chemical flavors hiding a tasteless mound of cloned leaves, genetically altered to repel insects and grow to a uniform shape for easy harvesting.

To me, the perfect taste of summer is the tomato sandwich I learned to make in Naples. Here is the recipe:
  1. Early in the morning (5 or 6 am is best), walk down to the local bakery and buy a loaf of freshly-baked, crusty Italian bread.
  2. Carry it home and put it on the counter to cool. You may want to cover it with a light dishtowel to keep the flies off.
  3. At 1 pm, go to the garden and pluck two ripe sun-warmed tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are best, but they should be real ones, the type that are now called "heirloom" and fetch high prices because they cannot be machine harvested.
  4. While you are in the garden, pluck a stem of basil and, unless you have some in the kitchen, you might as well grab a bulb of garlic.
  5. Back in the kitchen, find the olive oil.
  6. Slice the tomatoes into thick slabs.
  7. Peel, crush and mince two or three cloves of garlic.
  8. Slice about five or ten leaves of basil into thin strips. (You don't need to bother wiping the knife off between jobs ... don't be silly.)
  9. Slice the loaf of bread in half, parallel to its base and open it up.
  10. Drizzle both halves with a good amount of olive oil.
  11. Sprinkle the bottom half evenly with the garlic and shredded basil.
  12. Lay the tomato slices across it with the slices overlapping slightly.
  13. Take a pinch of coarse salt and scatter it over the red surface.
  14. Place the other half of the loaf on top.
  15. Cut the sandwich in half and place it on a plate.
  16. Put a handful of olives next to it.
  17. Pour a glass of mineral water with a squeeze of lemon (or if you want ... a glass of good Chianti).
  18. Take the plate and glass out to the garden to the chair and small table under the fig tree.
Serves one.