on Tomatoes

We eat tomatoes in as many forms as we can fathom. Stewed tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, tomatoes cooked into ratatoullie, tomatoes reduced into a sauce, pureed tomatoes, tomatoes cooked with potatoes, tomatoes roasted with potatoes, tomatoes roasted with peppers, garlic, eggplant, sumac, paprika, ginger, roasted and then bur-mixed into hummus; raw tomatoes, salted tomatoes, tomato salad, tomato sliced with fresh basil, salted, on croustinis. Tomatoes and tahini, salted. Greek salads, tomatoes, cucumber and pepper, crushed black pepper and sliced green and red peppers. Tomatoes with olives and feta on fresh bread with butter, sea salted. Tomatoes in every way possible, tomatoes in pasta. Red sauce and taglaitelli and cumin and garlic. Onions and tomatoes. Tomatoes on a beach, by the turqiouse medditerranean sea. The salty sea and the salty air and my salted tomato, too much salt for my lips and my leather skin. Ripe, red perfection.

Too many of the tomatoes go bad, I throw them out every day, twice a day. Every night. Tomatoes growing moldy, white with fungus seeping liquid from red and yellow wrinkled skin. Aged. The life-span too short to be fair. We didn’t stand a chance in the race against time. The tomatoes didn’t stand a chance. We could’ve been more creative, we could’ve used more faster, this tragedy didn’t have to happen. Tomatoes, hundreds of them, rolling around the bottom of the refrigirator, rolling around the back of my skull, constantly, taunting me, angry. Too many wasted red bulbs, juices seeping from skin onto skin, plump and sagging and bursting bulbs transferred from storage into compost. Juice dripping down my fingers, over knuckles, slipping between crevices and off of the ends of fingertips.

I keep trying, ecouraging everyone, to devour as many tomatoes as possible. Too many times have I sliced one in half, salted the pool of juice swimming with seeds, and taken the vessel into my salivating mouth. Just barely sweet, bursting behind my teeth, over my tongue, the entire medditteranean sea, salty, savory, swimming now inside of me.

I can’t do it alone. I beg the others to use the tomatoes; I present them at every meal, showcasing an entire cutting board at breakfast time, demonstating the art of topping buttered bread with a gushing slice, salted.

I cook them down and hide the carcasses in heaps of lentils and spices, calling it Dahl.

Sometimes we all drink coffee and sit on the patio facing the garden and talk about all of the work that we are not doing. We talk about all of the work that we should be doing. We talk about all the work that we aren’t exactly sure of doing. The chickens escape their coop and we round them up, picking up their panicking bodies and half flapping wings and carry them back to the metal fence. It’s better this way, this way we don’t have to constatly clean up after them. I miss them though, I miss the stange white one in particular. The one with feathers plucked from it’s neck and a chipped beak. The one that I found sleeping in the tool shed, the one that sat down with one wing perched away from it’s body, the one that snuck into the house and pecked at the compost bin.

We sit around the large wooden table and talk for far too long some more about the work that we should probably be doing and we eat the tomatoes and the bread and the eggplants. There are peaches as well, but they don’t outnumber the tomatoes, they are bought and given to us in a managaeble amount. We can finish the peaches before they go bad, but they’re still a very prominent part of our diet. The same six ingredients: Eggplants and zucchini fill the top shelf, and then onions and garlic and cucumbers, below are the peppers. The peppers are beginning to go bad, but still, I can’t stop thinking about the damn tomatoes. So many of them bouncing around my brain, bursting.

Three days ago seven of us loaded into a PT cruiser and were given directions to the nearest river. I sat in the very back, the trunk, where someone had recently spilled gasoline. It was all that I could smell. I took shallow, steady breaths as we made our way over mountaintops on the narrowest of two way roads and tried to enjoy as many of the views as possible, even as the car stalled out every so often, going up steep hills, even though I was the only one with no seatbelt on, even though gasoline filled my nostrils with its toxic scent, even though I was beginning to sweat, profusely, even though I felt sick to my stomach. I kept my eyes peeled, trying to enjoy every second that I could, knowing that one day I wouldn’t be here, that this was happening then and that in that moment, at least, I wasn’t heartbroken.

We finally found our way to the river, parking just over a narrow bridge, the car nearly rolling back down the mountain in the process. The water below us rushed swiftly over rocks, rapids crested white and outlined in pale turqiouse, and the water that ran calmer, smoother, clear as day, the rocks visible beneath the ripples of the current.

The six of us make our way down a hill on a path just off of the paved road and reach the edge of the river, a cool breeze breathes off of it and onto our skin. We make our way further into the forest, through thrick shrumbs that leave small scratches on our skin. We are sweating now, our clothes cling to our skin; I stink. We walk for a very long time. I stare across an open clearing at the mountains just beyond the trees on the horizon. Everything the light touches is beautiful, everything in the distance holds my gaze with wonder. I think of climbing to the top of the distant mountains. I think about how hot it would be and how much I would sweat.

We crouch under branches and nearly crawl through the brush before finally arriving to the river again. A small clearing of rocks covered in moss and vines. There is a bone on the ground. A large bone, some kind of animal’s. Ominious. We all laugh.

The woman from Argentina is the first to enter the water. The current is strong here but a shallow pool protected by rocks keeps a small portion safe enough to submerge our bodies beneath the water. I put my own bare feet into the cold water, carefully manuevering myself over a slippery stone. Gisella kneels, and then goes under the water. I am still catching my breath from the intial shock of my feet entering the icy stream. Gisella rises up and takes a deep breath. I can feel it, a new glow, a restored part of her being. I know it in my whole body that I have to do the same thing. I have to go under. The thought alone refreshes me.

Once Gisella stands up and begins to move out of the way I take her place, the water now midway up my calves. The water is the coldest water I’ve ever felt. I go down to my knees, the water licking at my inner thighs, my balls, they turn to ice themselves but I don’t cower away from the chill, I embrace it. The water embraces my torso now, inviting me deeper and deeper, I begin to lie down, my hands pulling at the small pebbles of the riverbed. Finally, taking a shallow breath, I lower my head beneath the surface. I can feel the water rushing around me, my body the only warm lifeform for miles, a hot sack being frozen from the outside in, the chill growing into my bones, the top of my skull saying goodbye to the heat inside of me as it invites the ice to freeze the blood in my veins. I don’t know how long I am underneath of the water for. I take a deep breath when I arise from the rushing water and open my eyes. The sun shines through the treetops in streams. I can’t imagine that I ever felt hot in my entire life. Heat is not a thing that exists. I am new. Baptised.

I do not sit in the trunk on the drive back to the villa. I stare out at the mountaintops from the passenger seat, the smell of gasoline still creeping into my nose, dreaming of the river.

A week ago a large box of small green apples arrived in our kitchen. Crab apples, I think. I stubbed my toe on the box one night. A week later my toe is still swollen and red. I decided to cut some of the apples up, before they rot. Peaches, too. I cut the apples up, and then the peaches, as an after thought, and begin to heat sunflower oil up in a small pot on the stove, with star anise and cloves. Once the scent of the spices fills the kitchen I strain the oil from the pot, seperating the cloves and anise and then adding the hot oil back into the pan and then the apples. Some of the oil splashes my bare skin, I return the pan with the apples to the stove top, throwing a genorous pinch of cinnamon on top of the fruit and then stepping away.

I turn the oven on, turning the nob the correct way, making sure not to cut the power by turning on the broiler, and begin to cut up all of the peppers that are beginning to lose their integrity and place them into a pan. I add some tomatoes that have seen better days, and also some garlic and olive oil. I am generous with the sumac and the paprika, and gentle with the hot pepper flakes. I take my bare hands and massage all of the ingredients together and then place the pan into the oven.

Three pairs of eyes are on me now, the other workawayers, looking for work to do. The smell of cinnamon wafts through the kitchen, wafts through the house, out of the open windows and into the garden.

I love that smell, Gisella comments. The others agree, I laugh.

It’s the smell of my love. I toss a quick smile in everyone’s direction before turning my attention back to the stove top, stirring the browning apples with a small plastic spatula. I think of what else to toss into the pot.

Nutmeg, whole. I take a small jar of the pods from the cabinet and pull the metal grater from it’s hanging spot above the sink and begin to grate one of the whole seeds over the fruits. The oil sizzles as sugars begin to break down and fruit begins to liquify. I ponder if I should make myself a cup of coffee.

Yesterday I made coffee on the stove with fresh anise in the pot, to add a hint of the licorice flavor. It was the smell of the spice that made the difference. Through the smell I could sense the taste of the spice. I decide that I don’t have the time to make the coffee.

Everything begins to happen quickly, as it always does in the kitchen. Suddenly the apples were soft enough and I began to add the peaches. I pull the pan of peppers from the oven and stir it, the scent of garlic and paprika now blending with that of the cinnamon and apples and peaches. The air is warm with heat and the smell of pies and fall. It is summer. The tomatoes are ripe above the fridge, bursting with their ripeness. Teasing us. Suicidal with ripeness.

Too tender to touch.

I begin to cut up a cucumber. Two cucumbers. Minutes pass, every other one I step away from the cutting board to stir the fruits in the pan. Every few minutes I check the vegetables in the oven. I julienne more onions and peppers and quarter tomatoes, and then half the quarters of the tomatoes. The vegetables find their way into a small metal rondoue, about ten inches in diameter, with the guidance of my hands.

My hand finds sugar, sprinkles sugar over apples and peaches, stirs and stirs. My hand finds a large sautee pan finds the back burner of the stove finds the nob to turn the heat on high. Hands lift the jam from the range, finds the counters, finds the immersion blender, fins the right angle to hold the hot pan with one hand to avoid the scolding splatter of sauce onto skin. Blender enters sizzling fruit and fingers hold the red button at the top. Lights flicker, the wiring in this house is hazardous. The blender purrees the fruits, a difficult task for such small blades. Soon the fruits have become a spread.

There are three of us in the kitchen now. Three spoons find there way into the jam.

Needs sugar. Gisella.

Seattle agrees. I agree because I want to please them.

It was a diet jam, I tease as I pour more sugar over the still sizzling puree. After mixing it once more we all try it again.

Perfect. Gisella.

Seattle agrees. I agree because I have pleased them.

I set the pot aside so that the jam can cool outside of the fridge. Something they teach you in culinary school. They also teach you to cool things rapidly, in ice baths or to spread them evenly over a sheet tray. Everything is relative. I haven’t gotten sick yet.

I wash the blades of the immersion blender and set the machine down on the counter. From the oven I pull the roasted vegetables and set them on the counter next to the immersion blender. Gisella takes intiative to puree the ingredients, which frees up my time to prepare the rest of our lunch. I pull out the tuppaware full of potatoes from the night before and toss the contents into the hot pan on the back burner of the range. Another pan is now replaces the pot that cooked the fruit. I spill sunflower oil into it and turn the heat of the range up. We have leftover lentil patty batter.

The kitchen is in full swing now. I am no longer solo dancing, I now have a partner. A sous. I can delegate. Gisella continues to blend up the vegetables. I work around her, dicing up another onion, another one of my afterthoughts, and toss it into the pan with the potatoes. Next I begin to form the lentil batter into small pattys, the size of meatballs, and then stick seven of the shapes into the sizzling oil. The oil splashes at my knuckles. The scolding isn’t painful. I accept the sear.

We can open a restaurant, I start. We’ll cook with the same ingredients every night, and have a special for each day of the week.

Gisella is cleaning up after herself now, pouring the makeshift romesco into a serving bowl and then proceeding to wash the blender and the pan that roasted the vegetables.

We’ll call it Extranjeras, she smiles. Light pours through the open window by the counter. Flies descend upon the compost bin and the carcasses of fruits and vegetables strewn about the countertop. Extranjeras is spanish for foreigners.

I become obsessive at some point. At some point it’s only me in the kitchen. People speak amongst themselves around me. I flip the lentil patties. They fall apart. I dump the pieces into the potatoes and begin again. There is a learning curve. I have to be patient, let the patties cook for longer. At some point I join in the conversation. People enter and exit the room, having conversations that I am barely a part of, contributing one word, two words, before resuming my manic stirring, my cutting. I slice stale bread and drop the pieces into the pan used to roast the romesco ingredients. The oil inside is rust colored. Seeds of pepper litter the bottom of the tray. I coat each slice one side at a time, and then place the pan back into the oven.

My mind races. Tomatoes. What can I do with the tomatoes?

I flip the lentils, this time only two of the seven patties fall apart. The rest remain unharmed, a dark brown crust on the side I scrap off of the pan. I toss the broken burgers into the hash of potatoes and stir.

Tomatoes. I can’t stop thinking about them. Obsessive. Gisella created an eggplant spread yesterday. Days ago I roasted tomatoes and pureed them into a hummus. Everything can become a spread. Peppers and onions. Olive tapenade. I wish we had more olives. Yesterday’s lunch finished off the last of our olives. A spread of freshly sliced tomatoes and basil served with garlic and scallion oiled croustinis, a greek salad, hummus and eggplant spreads, and roasted cauliflower topped with tahini. I could make a spread of tomatoes, a dip.

I take the fried lentil burgers and put them into a large roundoe and put the tray into the oven with the croustinis. The oven is just hot enough to keep toast the bread, to keep the patties from getting cold. I’m still dancing. I pour more oil into the saute pan and wait for it to heat up before putting more of the small lentil patties into the pan. The oil splashes at my fingers again. I’m enjoying the burn too much. I throw the cakes into the pan with more force each time, the oil lashing out at me harder. My skin begins to bubble. I slice more fresh tomatoes, arranging them in layers over an oval silver platter. The bread is toasted, golden brown. Pulling them, still hot, from the pan I arrange them on a small wooden cutting board, my fingertips burning, callouses created through blisters. I throw the hash of potatoes and onions and crispy lentil scraps into the now glutenous pan, and spread them out evenly, artfully. I put the last of the miniature burgers into the large roundoe and top it with scallions.

Everything I arrange over the bakers table. An art project. My art project. Obsessive. The romesco and hummus and eggplant dips in there respective bowls, each evenly placed between each item. The hummus in the largest boat, topped with cumin and olive oil in the back. Then the croustinis, then the tomatoes and lentil patties, then the romesco, then the greek salad. Everything arranged perfectly. A magazine cover, an entire spread. My artwork.

Bruschetta. We could make bruschetta with the tomatoes.