The tomatoes I grew up with in New England were mealy and anemic, and their gooey innards polluted the lettuce in our nightly salad if mixed too vigorously. I picked those pathetic, pale slices out of my salad and pulled them out of my sandwiches for two decades.
A one-night stand taught me how to make a basic Italian tomato sauce. I don’t recall his name or body, but I remember the high ceilings of his kitchen and his gorgeous, copper 5-gallon stockpot. We chopped onions and garlic and sautéed them in a generous glug of olive oil, and then added canned tomatoes and tomato paste. We must have flirted while the sauce simmered and transformed the tomatoes into something addictively deep in flavor, acid, sweet. I made this often in the months after, sometimes adding rounds of carrot or sliced button mushrooms. I ate it with whole grain penne or spaghetti, or sometimes straight from the pot, a meal on its own. Cold in the fridge, in a yogurt container on its second year as a make-shift tupperware, the sauce had spots of oil on top the vermillion of Arizona rock.
This was the summer I spent injecting fruit flies under a microscope, revolting at their segmented bodies, their various legs, their toothless, alien mouths. Feeling disgust clench my throat, and then pausing, breathing, and looking again was surely a form of masochism, as was spending a summer in a dark basement with only bugs and radio for company. It took the full three months, but my stomach went silent and I learned to admire their scarlet mirrorball eyes, the fur on their back legs that they use for mating, the proboscises that sit like curled ferns in their mouths.
I moved to Northern California, and everything changed. The tomatoes here are only distant cousins of the ones in New England. Instead of pink rubber balls, they are deeply hued and bare the irregularity of actual living organisms. At the supermarket that first summer, I pick them up, sniff, press my fingers into their slight give. I touch but do not taste.
A new friend introduced me to the local pour-over coffee shop, and taught me how to make chicken stock so good we’d drink it by the mug, pork cutlets in a sauce of mustard and diced cornichons, fresh spring peas with mint. This is someone who knows food, and cooks primarily with butter, and has the belly to show it. He buys only campari tomatoes, a variety closely related to cherry tomatoes but considerably larger. After he sampled one in front of me and assured me they were sweet, he urged me to try a slice. I endured the slime in the middle of the fruit, the red, metallic taste softened with sugar, and thought, Not too bad.
I started buying camparis and eating them in a ritualized practice: I take a tomato from the package, slice it in six or eight wedges, cover these with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. I bite into a wedge. If it is not sweet enough; if, god forbid, it is mealy, it goes to a waiting Pyrex tupperware, ready to freeze for some cooking purpose, or straight to the compost if the freezer is full. I try another and another until I find one, firm and sweet enough, and this one I eat, curious and still a little repulsed.
Chuck was all red hair, long legs and arms with big hands and feet dangling off the end of his limbs like poppy buds bowing their long stems. He was always knocking things over, unused to his new height and lengths. Every Sunday in that dusty church, we’d argue with the kind young minister who taught our small class. Chuck and I took a bus together once, still too young to drive, running an errand for the Easter egg hunt. There were no free seats, so we both grabbed the pole. His hand brushed up the metal, over mine, and back down again, three times, four, sending electricity through my center. I looked away, my face burning. Him? I thought that night, recalling his spindly arms spotted with freckles, his roughly carved face topped with wiry red curls. Him, I realized, breathless and blushing again.
We circled and circled each other, too young to trust what we thought we saw. Every time he brushed against me, a stun, an electric violet bursting open inside me. And then in the small room with the piano, he held my hand and told me, I’m not ready for a relationship. He laid his head in my lap, and I touched his face, my body burning beneath it.
I branched out to cherry tomatoes, encouraged by the camparis. Cherry tomatoes and their oblong cousins, grape tomatoes, are easy to eat as they are almost invariably sweet, and never tip into mealiness. But like most other varieties, they are only reliably flavorful in the summer. It is winter, and their flesh is firm and a little pale. I put them in a heated, un-oiled stainless steel pan and let them sit undisturbed until they char, and then shake the pan to turn them. Cooking this way breaks the starches down to sugar, releases latent flavor, and adds smoky depth. Once they have black sear marks on at least two sides, I turn off the heat, add olive oil, salt, and pepper, and lightly crush them against the bottom of the pan. I spoon the blackened tomatoes and their juices onto crusty white toast, or, in a pinch, use toasted corn tortillas as a vehicle.
In winter on the east coast, my heart beat would slow as the days got shorter. As the months wore on, I would revert to bed more and more, making a cave of blankets, layered wool, and down. I hid there with books and imported clementines, breathing through a hole just big enough to allow a trickle of light and air.
The first time I visited California, it was January. The warm night air, swimming pools, and fruited citrus trees of my grandparents’ Orange County retirement community were a miracle. The second time I visited, I stayed with my sister in Silverlake, walked the canals of Venice, and marveled at the sparkling white and even teeth of the strange, thin people.
In Northern California, crocuses come up in January; daffodils in February; hyacinth in March. As spring comes on, cherry and grape tomatoes are the first to flavor. I’ve never gotten accustomed to the way an intact cherry tomato will squirt its innards as if you are biting down on some small, terrible organ, so I slice each one vertically. I fill a bowl, drizzle them with olive oil, and eat them with a fork, savoring just one half-round at a time. My transformation has begun in earnest: the first week they are really good, I buy – and eat raw, just this way –$40 of tomatoes by myself.
In the new lab, I am working on a new organism: a worm about the size of a punctuation mark. Through their transparent bodies, you can see the intestine, running dark and straight along the length of the body. The gonad folds up against itself, length by length, and ova line up in perfect rows, like chicken eggs in a carton. At night, a movie of their sinusoidal movement plays against the backs of my eyelids.
My next experiment is with hybrid kumatos, which lure me with their maroon and dark green coloring. This Spanish cultivar is similar in shape and size to camparis, and so I eat them in the same way: sliced in sixths or eighths, complemented with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper. The flesh is firm. The flavor is as deep as the color. My degustation: maple syrup and a hint of grass in the nose; a robust, firm body; meat on the palate. The finish is lemon. These are tomatoes worth daydreaming about. They call my name when the fingers of hunger start moving in my stomach. I crave.
The heirlooms show up in May, in open troughs of red, yellow, and dark green, stemmed and lobulated. Consider me a convert. Every week, with fresh hope, I paw through the piles for fruits that are heavy and scented, firm with just a little give. It is July before they reference their namesake, beefsteak: the largest red ones are meant to be cut in half-inch-thick slices and eaten with a fork and knife, with salt and pepper, with relish and deep, sighing satisfaction.
I’ve always been partial to men with pretty faces, men with the kinds of faces that dominate the covers of Teen Scene magazine, attracting the girls whose delicate features they nearly mirror. I liked to trace a finger down the slope of a nose, over damp, pink lips, through soft hair. But their bodies, all those straight lines, were foreign and unappealing in comparison to the women I’d loved, or to my own curves under my own hands in the shower.
I kissed one, and then another, and then another, driven more by curiosity than desire: What was his body like under his clothes? What would his face look like in desire? What noises would let loose from his throat? I traced my hands along the plane of chest, down the V of torso, along the right angle of hard cock. I learned them by heart, by Bible, by scent and tone.
Of course, now that I’ve found tomatoes, I have something to lose, and lose, and lose. Year by year, they appear in their full glory for just a season, and then disappear, leaving me wanting.
I celebrate summer with a bounty of tomato salads, with or without mozzarella. I eat sandwiches of tomato and schmaltzed milk bread, and gorge on gazpacho. Over the last couple of years, my cooking has taken on a seasonal rhythm. In the summer, tomatoes take me around the globe. My chicken vindaloo and chole masala shine with depth and sweetness. I study Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, and experiment: her tomato and butter sauce really is that good. Jacques Pepin’s sliced tomato gratin is my apology and redemption for tomatoes I’ve left waiting. A little overripeness is irrelevant to this luxurious mess of bubbling tomato and cheese.
And then, we move into that season starring things that grow on the ground, or in the earth: rutabagas and yams, cauliflower and chicory. I put Marcella back on the shelf until next summer. On weekends, bereft of tomatoes, I move to Jerusalem. I buy pomegranate molasses and tahini; I roast lamb chops and braise leeks. I simmer and savor. On weekdays, weary from work, I stay in California and I devote myself first to spaghetti squash and then to brussel sprouts. I celebrate spring with asparagus. But all the time I am waiting, watching, eager for summer to return with flesh red, ripe, and ready.
Hope Henderson is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. Her nonfiction and poetry have been recently been published or are forthcoming in magazines such Jellyfish Review, The Citron Review, Mojave Heart Review, and Lost Balloon. You can find her at hoperhenderson.com, and on twitter @hoperhenderson.