Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Gastronomic Heritage

I do believe there is something about old ladies and tomatoes. Some sort of craving-affinity-love for tomatoes which "regular" folk just don't get. At least that's been my life: there is always, at some corner of my life a little ol' lady making conversation for minutes on end about some juicy tomato waiting on her when she gets home, to make it into a sandwich. And it's traveled with me across cultures, this tomato thing.

I grew up hating tomatoes. As a matter of fact, I was a terrible eater as a child. I'd fuss at pretty much everything: milk products, fruits, veggies or anything that contained them, sweets. My favorite foods were beans and bologna. That was it! Oh, and stuffed peppers. I was blessed with a mother that didn't fret too much about my eating disgusts. Her motto is: "You're not eating, it's your stomach that is empty. *shrug*". (very "insightful", eh?!) So, she didn't bother insist.

So, having all the freedom I wanted, I hated tomatoes along with all the other fruits and veggies there were. Until one summer.

We used to live in the mountains in the summer, when we were little - that is the subject of a whole anthology, for a later date. We used to live in houses with small quarters, share rooms with a lot of folks, and with electricity, but no bathrooms or any plumbing inside. People were self-sufficient, there: had animals, birds, land - to provide their own food daily. We just had to work for it. We ate what we grew or picked in the woods.

In the mountains, we used to live with my dad's godparents. These folks were so wonderful, in every which way, they sound like fairy tale people! Best marriage I have ever seen, older people, with their children grown, moved out and having kids of their own, with the patience of saints, and wisdom of sages!

I called his godmother "bica", which means "grandma" in Romanian. She was not really my grandma, but I have been ever so lucky to have several sets of family in my life.

"Bica" was not mom. She did fret about my not eating. A lot. She used to feed us fresh cheese and slices of tomato, with freshly baked bread every morning. For seven days straight, that's what you'd get for breakfast! Maybe you'd get some eggs, on weekends. Maybe, if it was not too hot to make a fire in the wood stove and cook them. It was usually: tomatoes and cheese for breakfast. I hated both. So, she let me be, for a day, two, a week. Maybe even a summer.

The following summer, she discovered I did not grow out of it. So, she sat next to me, and said: "I am not leaving here, until you eat every bit of tomato and cheese I put on your plate. Trust me: if something happens to you, I have enough money saved up, and I'll pay for you back to your dad. He won't fuss if something horrible does happen to you. So, eat up!". Somehow, in my 6 or 7 year old mind that ALL made sense.

Just like today, someone promises us "insurance" and it all makes us feel so much better (even if the car will still be totaled or the house burned down), I somehow knew that if she promises to pay for the whole me this really won't do any major harm! And she was right. Nothing ever did happen to me. And another beautiful thing that came out of it is that I have loved tomatoes ever since that very day. Still not a fan of cheese, but a 50% chance of a win, is a good deal! I think.

To this day, I buy tomatoes (a lot of them) in April - May. When the winter time is over and gorging on comfort food just because it's cold passes, and I want something light, healthy, guilt-free, yet rich and delish, I turn to tomatoes. I still eat them with a bit of salt and a drop of oil on them, just like she taught me to, and I think of my "bica" every time. I even cut them like her, holding them in my hand, rarely using a cutting board, all uneven slices, all various shapes. And she probably is smiling down on me, proud of her success, and that she didn't have to blow her savings on my account.

The whole thing now is a ritual that takes me back and makes me appreciate the simple foods, and simple gestures. We were not blood relatives, but it was important to her to do the right thing in this world, and teach a child to appreciate all that Earth has to give. She did it simply. I wish we found more people who would take the time to do simple and major things for those to come after us anymore.

Happy birthday, “bica”, wherever you are … and love, always …

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