I had the opportunity to prepare an elaborate meal for a group of people last night. The dinner was a delight from start to finish, and the best result was the beginning of new friendships. I think it’s safe to say that it was a memorable evening. Food can do that.
Last week, we celebrated The Husband’s birthday with what has become an annual activity: a trip to one of our favorite beaches, followed by an outrageous meal of fried seafood. My parents joined us, and we ate ourselves silly. We sat in the same booth as last year. We ordered the same combination of clams, shrimp, scallops, and onion rings. Everything tasted exactly the same as it does every year, which was exactly the point, because traditions depend on familiarity. Food can do that, too.
And so, on to the tomatoes.
When I was little, my dad’s parents kept a vegetable garden in their backyard. I know they grew a variety of produce, but I only remember the tomatoes. We spent a couple of weeks every summer in my parents’ hometown, and our vacation (at least in my mind) always coincided with the height of tomato season. My grandfather grew big fruit; beefsteaks, I think. The plants were tied to tall wooden stakes arranged in rows that seemed endless to me. I loved to walk into the middle of the tomato patch and surround myself. The stakes were taller than I was, and the bright orbs extended from my ankles all the way up over my head. The aroma was intoxicating. The heat of the sun, the riot of colors, and the smell of the ripe fruit formed the most intense synesthesia that I have ever experienced. To this day, the smell of a ripe tomato is the purest essence of sunshine that I know.
How is it that my first-generation Irish-American grandfather grew vast quantities of a Mediterranean crop? Even more curious is what he did with his harvest. He made gallons of marinara sauce, slow-cooked over a low heat with peppers, onions, and herbs. We ate spaghetti and meatballs often at their house. We also ate plenty of standard Irish fare as well: corned beef and cabbage, potatoes in many forms, pot roast…but what I remember the most is the rich red sauce that came right out of my summer afternoons. My dad carried that recipe with him into our home. He cooked tomatoes down into a dense pulp in the pressure cooker. I was terrified of that pan, with its rattling bulb on top and the hiss of steam coming out of the valve. My dad would leave it on the stovetop all afternoon on a Sunday. By evening, the whole neighborhood would know what we were having for dinner, as the scent of herbs and tomatoes wafted out the windows. I never ate pasta sauce from a jar when I was growing up, and purchasing the ready-made stuff still feels like cheating to me today, even if it’s a gourmet product from a specialty store.
One of the dishes I served last night was a new invention–gazpacho sorbet. I wanted a sweet but bright-flavored palate cleanser between the appetizers and the entree, and since the menu was Spanish, this seemed like exactly the right choice. When we were reviewing the meal this morning, The Husband commented enthusiastically on the way the tomato flavor burst through. That was the intent. I wanted to distill a childhood memory into a spoonful of happiness. Food can do that.