Today is one of those landmark days of summer. We all have them, although not everyone chooses
to note them. I always do. Like, the first bite of watermelon of the season, the first tender peach, the first BBQ offering up a medium rare hamburger, or the perfect hot dog on a bun.
Today we ate the first ripe tomato from our back yard garden. Juicy, not too many seeds, tasty and with an aroma. There is no resemblance between a store-bought, hot-house tomato, one that has been gassed to turn it red, and a garden grown, vine ripened, tomato.
I have often purchased a box of tomatoes in Costco or the local supermarket. Truly, they were pretty, but I believe they should be renamed as they are nothing like a real tomato. Some are so hard you could play softball with it and do it no damage. When you cut into one, usually more orange-colored than red, there is no scent. And you may as well put a slice of raw zucchini on your sandwich for all the flavor the off-season tomatoes reward you with.
So I sliced into this summer’s first tomato and that is when I realized how good it was for my memory. Immediately, I was transported into my Grandmother’s kitchen, sitting at the table watching her make a fresh tomato and onion salad. Not too many raw onions or your eyes will water and your tongue will burn while you eat it. The salad was oh so good and she never diluted the opposing flavors with lettuce. It was perfect as it was. I could almost smell it now.
When my father was alive , I was sent downstairs to my Grandmother’s apartment to keep her company. Since all her children were adults and gone to live their own lives and her husband long gone, the evenings and nights would have been lonely for her. So every evening I went downstairs in my pajamas, supposedly to sleep. Each morning I ran back upstairs to dress for school. I never minded going, although, once or twice the thought that I had been replaced in my mother and father’s affection by my baby sister crossed my mind. The fleeting thought never stayed with me. I was loved. No doubt about it. Besides I really liked going down to my Grandmother’s. She never made me go to sleep until I was ready, even on school nights. After all I was there to keep her company.
Grandma had a black and white television (never tv) and an a RCA Victrola which played 78s (those big, heavy records probably made out of china.) Only rarely did we listen to the few records she owned (Mario Lanza). Mostly it was television. Charlie Chan movies or Bela Lugosi as Dracula. They were grainy films, they flickered and often the picture rolled either vertically or horizontally. It always happened at the best parts of a movie and you would need to jump up and tune it in with a button called the tuner. But we had the best times. I got her undivided attention. What could be better than that?
For snack she would make what we called a poor man’s salad. (A half loaf of hard Italian bread sprinkled with water so you didn’t break your teeth, salt, pepper, olive oil, oregano and of course a few onions, sliced in thin half moons.) This concoction was put together and left to blend for about a half hour. Then we would sit cuddled together on her overstuffed couch and devour it while being scared to death by Bela, or Lon Chaney, Jr. (Remember Larry Talbot?) The couch had a floral slip cover on it. When the springs finally went and we were throwing it out I was amazed to see the still new upholstery was a burgundy velvet.
For about a year or two this was our ritual. Each night I went to bed with this (nourishing?) snack laying heavy on my very young and strong stomach. Every morning, after running upstairs to get dressed in my Catholic elementary school uniform I would return to her apartment and she would make me a double espresso to warm me up before school. I was very alert in the second grade :).
We each have special memories of our Grandmothers or Grandfather
s, if we are lucky. Fortunately for me, tomatoes are good for my memory!