“Those round, pinkish red things that are available in the stores bear no resemblance at all to the real tomato.” ―
For the Love of Tomatoes
You never forget your very first lie.
I was 5 years old. The summer wind was fierce and hot and dry. The late July sun burned our cheeks brown in the sun, making us wince when my mom scrubbed the dirt off our reddened skin in the bathtub at night.
I didn’t wear shoes all summer long. The grass was tough, but my feet were tougher. I ran like a creature made out of light and air and sun– chasing the breezes as they kissed the wildflowers good morning. I climbed trees and skinned my knees and tried to catch crayfish in the little creek that babbled and giggled down by my grandparents’ old farmhouse. I ate wild strawberries and tried to coax the horses (and even cows) over to the fence to give me a ride.
Around midday, when my tummy was growling so loudly that it interrupted even my single minded playtime, I could hear my mom calling far away from the house: “Kids! Lunchtime!”
The picnic table was set under the maple tree, its red and white checkered tablecloth wafting lazily in the breeze. There were several pitchers of ice cold drinks, already sweating in the heat. I saw slices of watermelon and cantaloupe piled high. Deviled eggs and pickles winked from sand colored rubbermaid containers. Hot dogs and hamburgers nestled in beside pillowy soft buns. But what caught my eye was a towering pile of sandwiches which seemed to call my name more clearly than anything else.
They were like sirens, calling to me as they glistened seductively on white, perfectly soft Wonder Bread. They had been generously smeared with butter, and each contained a thick, ruby slice of just-picked garden tomato.
My Gram noticed my lovestruck gaze. “Emilie, don’t eat yet. We have to wait for everyone to wash up first.” She slid the plate of sandwiches back, away from my curious nose. I tried to turn away from them. I did try. A little bit.
But when Gram went into the house to get the napkins and plates, I saw my chance. After all– I had never actually promised to leave them alone, had I? I snatched one of the sandwiches and dove under the table with my prize. I closed my eyes and took one perfect, sumptuous bite. The sandwich was everything it had promised. The bread was so soft that it squished under my fingers, leaving the imprint of my hands on its very heart. The tomato was still warm from the sun– full of life and promise and none of the staleness that its refrigerated, store-bought cousins always seemed to contain. It was zesty and seductive and so beautiful and delicious. I was poised to take another bite when my heart froze. I saw Gram coming across the lawn already, back much earlier than I had anticipated. What to do? I panicked.
In a moment of pure fear I quickly placed my purloined prize (complete with its 5 year old bite) back onto the stack of sandwiches and bolted.
I watched, fearful of discovery, from the innards of a nearby lilac bush. Would she know it was me? Her feet walked up to the table. I could tell that she placed down whatever she was carrying and started to turn to walk back to the house. Relief surged through me. I was safe.
But wait! Oh curses. She turned back around and walked slowly to the side of the table with the sandwiches. She stood there, examining them.
And then I heard it. The dreaded call. “Emilie! Come here!”
I considered hiding out for all eternity, but I knew the jig was up. I walked innocently (I thought) out of the bushes, playing with a stick as if I had been there for hours. “Did you call me Gram?” I assumed my most angelic face.
Gram held out the beautiful, ruined sandwich, still pressed into the incriminating shape of my tiny hands. “Did you do this? I told you not to eat until everyone else was ready.”
I gulped and tried not to look at her face.
“Well? Was it you?”
I took a deep breath.
“No. I didn’t take it.”
Well. I hadn’t TAKEN it after all. I had put it back.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I do remember the terror of being caught, red handed, with my eyes closed in the throes of forbidden bliss.
But mostly, I remember the taste of that gorgeous, ruby sandwich, the juices so bright and fresh that they ran down my arm. I remember the allure of the forbidden– the taste so succulent that I risked it all to have just a single bite.
Today I still think about them– those gorgeous, misshapen heirlooms with their strange colors and lumpy, bumpy skin. I think about their colors– golden yellow with stripes of red, orange, purple, and a deep, brooding red. I think about the way they smell– like earth and sky and the sharp, pungent scent of the vine. You can still get a whiff of a tomato vine on your hands hours after handling one– a kiss to remember they have been there– just as a femme fatale leaves a lingering scent of her perfume on the pillow.
I think all these things as I handle the tomatoes at the grocery store– the poor, woebegone creatures that look like fat free cheese and suffering. And right there I stop and remember that soft, unbelievably juicy tomato sandwich, its juices running down my arms and cleansing my soul.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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