Finding love (of sorts) at the farmer’s market
You were skeptical. You stepped out of the car and I asked if you wanted a bag. You said no. “Trust me, you’ll want one,” I replied, only to have you look at me skeptically, doubtfully. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t trust me.
As we headed from the parking lot to the farmer’s market, I pointed to a tent brimming with bright red and yellow tomatoes, the pinkest radishes, the greenest cucumbers and the fullest heads of lettuce, like lions’ manes. “This one’s always my last stop. Their tomatoes are to die for,” I said, emphasising the word die. Then you replied some nonsense about how fresh the tomatoes are from Whole Foods. They may be okay, they may even be good on occasion, but I would never venture to say that they’re exquisite. There’s something about a local, freshly picked tomato that’s unrivaled in flavor and texture. You smiled to shut me up, not necessarily disagreeing with me, but not really believing me either.
We wandered from vendor to vendor, stopping at the fish and seafood, various baked items, artisanal cheeses, meats — fresh, cured and paté, the locally grown flowers, honeys, more tomatoes and corn — oh the corn! We continued to the emerald-colored lettuces, jewel-toned beets, deeply purpled peppers, pink and green marbled beans, each a magnificent work of art. I pointed out the food trucks, the organic Mexican, pizza and burgers. We walked around a few times as I filled my bag with so much stuff that it couldn’t have possibly fit so much as a grain of rice when I was all done. I could sense you coming around, and when I mentioned that members get a discount with each purchase I saw your eyes light up. And then, there you were picking out tomatoes, lifting every other one up, sizing each one for color and weight before gingerly placing them in your bag. I watched as you carefully selected the rest of the produce. I knew then I had made a believer of you.
But it wasn’t until after we were both home and I received a text from you.
“Oh my dear Sweet Jesus those jalapenos, radishes, and tomatoes are good…. thank you!” I smiled. You got it. You got it the way I get it. You understand my love for food — my love for good food. Another text followed.
“There’s a buttery softness to everything…”
To a girl who’s as passionate about food as passion itself, those words were foreplay to my ears. He gets it. He gets me. He understands the difference between a fresh ripe tomato and one from the store. And I know you understand food. I’ve been with you long enough to know when you’ve had a bite of something you truly believe to be extraordinary. Your reactions are not unlike my own. I’ve seen you (correctly) critique something you’ve eaten that was less that pleasing. I get it. I love it. I live it.
I am writing this for you because you have asked me to write about food, and because for some reason you liken me to MFK Fisher. You suggested I write about farmers markets. And you suggested I write about tomatoes. I turned my nose up at the idea. It seems ages since I’ve put pen to paper. I’ve not been inspired. It’s been dreadful. And then I started writing and the words kept flowing. Like a much needed rain after a long, hot, dry, summer, it was incredibly refreshing.
But I must confess that it wasn’t so much the tomato that inspired me or even the farmer’s market. It certainly wasn’t you telling me to write about oysters, (“bivalves are fascinating!”) or even to write at all… My inspiration came not from a conversation we had, but your reaction to it.
I love food. I remember telling you that. I love good food. Some people eat because they have to. Some people eat for nourishment and others eat for pleasure. I fall into the latter category. This doesn’t mean that I don’t often scarf something down quickly in haste due to demands of life and constraints of time, it simply means that there are few things, in my opinion, as enjoyable as a great meal. Not a good meal, or even a mediocre meal — a great meal. And as I started to differentiate between the three, I likened it to sex. There’s good sex, great sex and terrible sex. I feel much the same way about food. My food experiences have run the gamut from terrible to exceptional, and my sexual experiences have as well.
Because you know that I’m wired differently, you listen to me differently. You listen with great interest, intent to get to know who I am on a very deep level. Much deeper than most people I have met. I suppose it’s because in our own way we’re philosophers, you and I. Although we both think deeply, we do think very differently. You understand my creativity. You understand that because I am deeply creative I am also deeply passionate and this applies to almost everything in my life — experiences, people and food. I am, as you so correctly pointed out, an experience seeker. I suppose I am unusual. One might even say an anomaly. I have been called an eccentric, less for my style of dress which is fairly traditional and just a bit edgy, but for my way of thinking. I don’t disagree. And so I apply these thoughts to life, to my work, travels and to food.
Let’s take that tomato. If I were to ask if you wanted a tomato without using any descriptive words, you’d likely imagine it to be red and round, a layer of skin covering a fleshy interior filled with juice and seeds. The tomato, however is so much more. As we stood at the table filled with the ripe fruit that ranged from sunny yellow to something resembling a Chinese red, smaller versions marbled with thin red veins, and green hued, oblong, fruits with threads of burgundy running along the exterior. In another week there will be an even greater variety in shapes that may seem more akin to small pumpkins or peppers and yet these sweet fleshy fruits are all tomatoes. And so, how dare we assume that all tomatoes are round and red? And how dare we assume that all tomatoes taste the same? For one, I am not fond of large yellow tomatoes that lack the acidity of their ruby cousins. I find them too mild. Almost mealy. I will tell you, however, they’re divine in gazpacho.
Back to the red tomato because those were the chosen ones — those and the small yellow ones which I do love because they’re crisp and explode when you bite into them, allowing a stream of sweet juice to fill your mouth. They’re perfect alone. I pop them in my mouth like cherries without the hassle of spitting out the pits. While I do love all the heirloom varieties, it was the simple red tomato, my first of the season.
Due to a slight problem I’m having with fruit flies at the moment it is necessary that I keep all my produce in the refrigerator. I was brought up knowing that one leaves tomatoes on the counter, to refrigerate them is to dull their flavor and while I quite agree, I haven’t a choice at the moment. So into the icebox they all went, except for one.
I selected a medium sized tomato and quickly ran it under the kitchen sink and patted it dry. I then took the large serrated knife from its slot in the wooden block and placed it on the cutting board. A clear acrylic grinder filled with pink himalayan salt was near my right hand. I placed the tomato on the wooden board, twisting off the small green stem and tossing it into the sink before cutting it into six sections that I then placed neatly on a plate before sprinkling the pink salt over each piece.
I didn’t bother going to the table with my plate as I popped a slice into my mouth still standing at the counter. The meat was sweet and juicy and seemed to melt on my tongue, meanwhile the salt, coarse by comparison and the perfect juxtaposition of texture and flavor seemed to crackle on my tongue. I ate my way through all six slices, acknowledging the simple perfection of what I had just consumed.
Although it was not quite lunchtime per se, I decided that it was close enough, and now that I’d had a sampling of my bounty, I needed more. I opened the refrigerator door and took out the arugula, little bright pink radishes, the spicy pepper, a handful of the yellow cherry tomatoes, and a medium sized red one. While I normally opt for protein on my salad — an egg, some chicken or salmon, I decided that the addition would take away from the integrity of the freshly picked produce.
Into a glass bowl perfectly suited for a large salad but too large, say, for ice cream or soup, I placed a couple of generous handfuls of arugula. Next I washed and sliced the radishes not quite paper thin. I did the same with the jalapeno. I halved the cherry tomatoes and sliced through the red one. I added all the ingredients to the bowl and sprinkled just a small amount of the Pink Himalayan salt to the top of my mound before proceeding to make my salad dressing.
I’ve lately switched from vinegar to lemon juice for the acid — I find the bite is still there but the dressing has a smoother finish. I rarely measure, but eyeball my ingredients instead. When I make my dressings with vinegar I tend to use 1 part vinegar to 3 parts olive oil and a tablespoon of water. Sometimes I add Dijon, sometimes I add dried herbs such as Italian Seasonings or Herbes de Provence and almost always a full clove of garlic or two. I always add salt. But my lemon vinaigrette requires almost equal parts lemon to oil — and because the lemon is that much smoother I tend to use a lighter olive oil in this dressing, or a light salad oil, a term from my childhood. Because I don’t always have fresh lemon on hand I keep a bottle of organic lemon juice in the fridge. It has so many purposes, including the base for a perfect salad dressing.
To my dressing I added a generous pinch of salt and Herbes de Provence. I shook the jar and watched as it magically emulsified then removed the lid and turned the bottle sideways, as the pale yellow liquid poured down in a thin stream over the brightly colored ingredients. I needed just a little bit. When satisfied with the amount, I placed the bottle down and tossed the vegetables with my fork before plunging it in and stabbing a piece of tomato, some lettuce and the radish that stuck to it.
And you were right. There was a buttery softness to everything.
I brought my bowl over to the couch and picked up the phone to call you. I put you on speaker and my mouth was filled with salad when you answered. I leaned my head back against one of the of the oversized pillows, closed my eyes and listened to you talk while just savoring the flavors all waltzing around in my mouth. A simple crunch of the radish, the bite from the jalapeno, the sweetness of the tomato, the soft pepperiness of the arugula, the zestiness of the dressing — it amazed me that something so simple as a bowl of raw vegetables could cause such immense pleasure. Eyes closed, I took another bite. I had the same reaction.
“Good food is definitely as good as good sex,” I said to you, eyes still closed. Although we were on the phone I could see you making that face of yours when you think I’ve lost my mind. We had very lightly touched upon the top earlier that morning, but as I began to explain and articulate my thoughts, I could see you understand just where I was coming from. I removed the bowl from my lap, sat upright and opened my eyes. “They’re both highly sensual,” I continued. “And when you think about it there’s an element of sight, smell, touch and even sound that all turn a simple act into a heightened and pleasurable experience. Both good sex and good food can turn on those pleasure receptors.” I knew, at that very moment, that I had expressed a thought and exposed a part of myself that even after all these years, you may not have fully seen or fully understood. I knew then that something had changed in you… in me … in us.
It was at that moment that I realized that no one, not my parents, not my friends and certainly not my former husband, knew me fully or wholly. I placed the bowl back on my lap and dug back in savoring each morsel. When I had finished I was sad in the way one gets sad when the last bite of something delicious is gone — usually in reference to something sweet and forbidden like a piece of chocolate or something just as sinful. And while the salad was now gone, I wondered if something else was just beginning.