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October 31, 2011 / la otra Mexicana

Tomahtoes

Sunday afternoon Labor Day weekend, near tea-time, I made myself a tomato sandwich, (tomahto, I had a Scottish Granny). Sliced white Pepperidge Farm bread, gobs of mayonnaise, thinly sliced fresh farm tomatoes, a sliver of red onion, salt and pepper. I only eat tomatoes in August and September. The poor, watery, tasteless things that go by the name of tomato and are sold at other times of the year, cannot compete, or even sit on the same counter with a fresh August or September tomato. When I was ten or twelve, no one had to ask me twice to go down to the garden to pick tomatoes for the evening salad. A salad of iceberg lettuce and French dressing out of a bottle, but still accompanied by superior tomato flesh. I would run barefoot across the lawn, to the vegetable garden. My feet feeling the warm soft earth. I put my hands into the vines, stirring up the tangy, sharp scent, searching for that very ripe tomato which would fall off into my hand . Smell it. Ripe and delicious, perhaps a little earth on it, splashed up from the rain or the watering. I would always find another smaller, ripe tomato, bite into it, sun warm and juicy. The first frost comes early in Northern Connecticut. All the tomatoes, ripe and unripe, had to be picked.The paler, almost ripe tomatoes would sit in the kitchen, on the window sill, taking their time to ripen. The green tomatoes became green tomato pickle and green tomato relish, but the very best was fried green tomatoes to accompany fried mush and bacon. My grandfather made breakfast in the mornings, while my grandmother had her coffee in bed. He had spent a year at the University of Virginia, and there acquired a taste for corn meal mush. You boil the corn meal, add lots of butter, let it cool in a loaf pan, then cut it in slabs and dredge it in flour and fry it till crispy delicious. The green tomatoes were dipped in egg batter and fried along side the bacon and the mush. Those cool mornings leaning into fall, my cousin and I bounded down the back stairs of my grandparents’ house to the breakfast room, to the small walnut trestle table. After the green tomatoes, there was no thought of a tomato again until next summer. The year I went to Ireland, (it was in August), driving up the West Coast, Shannon, Ennis, Doolin, and a stop there to play a tune with the never ending music, and then, lost and tired and grouchy later in the afternoon, we stopped at Ballyvaughan. In the dark paneled and comfortable pub, at that late hour, all that was available was potato leek soup and tomato sandwiches. Oh not enough to assuage the hunger and the weary heart! The revivifying soup brought a better mood, but the sandwich – thin sliced white bread, lush Irish butter and a tiny sliver of white onion, and the rich, sun-filled Irish tomato was heaven. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. (Well, almost. The absolute best thing I have ever eaten was ketchup soup one afternoon in Mexico. Because we lived on a mountain, without a telephone, one hour from the hospital, el Sanatorio Moderno, where I expected to have my baby, our first child, my husband had bought a car. An old Renault that had belonged to his cousin Catalina, in Mexico City. The car behaved famously well on the drive to the hospital in Leon, past the purple jacarandas, and back again with our baby, Mario Bernardo Ruiz Catharine Santillan McGuire. We sang all the way home, lullabies, and joyful songs and most especially the welcome song of the city of his birth, Entre Sierras y Montanias, between the hills and the mountains, and under the blue sky, there is my land . The car quit after that. It became temperamental and spoiled, demanding to be pushed down the mountain road till it kicked into gear. My husband became adept at this maneuver, jumping in at just the right moment. When out baby was a week? Two weeks old? We had an appointment in Leon with the gynecologist who had delivered the baby and the pediatrician. We put Bernardo’s baby basket in the back seat, [there were no baby car seats, and there were no seat belts either,] got in the car and rolled off down the hill. The highway, a curvy, busy, two lane affair, was crowded with heavy cargo trucks and speeding cars. Our Renault didn’t like it. It stalled on the level roadway going through the center of the Bajio. We were able to get it off the highway onto the shoulder. My husband suggested that we try pushing the car,Well, that he push and that I steer the car back onto the road, and that he would jump in and take over when it kicked in. This of course only really worked when the car was facing downhill. Mario pushed, the car chugged onto the highway as trucks zoomed past us making our little car shake and sputter, and it would stop again. We tried this in the hot March sun for over an hour. I was hysterical with fear and heat and exhaustion. It became clear that we were never going to make it to our appointments in Leon. Somehow we got the car onto to the road and turned around toward home, and like an old horse headed toward the stable and the feedbag, the Renault kicked into action. Weak from the fear and the heat, we looked for a place to stop for comida, that life sustaining all important mid-day Mexican meal. There were no restaurants. No taco stands. Nothing. But over to the right was the dirt road that led to the rancho where our friends Esteban and Lucy lived with their little girl Olivia. They like us were a bi-cultural couple, Mexican husband and American wife. We knew by the unwritten law, that all who present themselves are to be treated as Christ, that they would feed us, so we turned down the dusty road. Esteban greeted us warmly explaining that Lucy and Olivia had gone to visit friends. He made us sit down in their kitchen and gave us lemonade while he quickly made a soup from his bachelor days – ketchup and chicken broth, and that was the best thing I have ever tasted.) After the divine tomato sandwich of Ballyvaughan, we were converts. We asked for tomato sandwiches in every pub up the West Coast of Ireland, from the Burren to Westport, County Mayo even if there were no tomato sandwiches on the menu. Outside Galway on our way to Connemara, we stopped at a roadside pub near Spiddal, asked and waited expectantly. And waited. And waited. Until we saw our waiter, the pub owner, run out the side door and across the neighboring field. A few minutes later he came hurrying back with a small brown paper bag. And then we had our tea, and another tomato sandwich.

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One Comment

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  1. Eustacio Greaves / Nov 1 2011 7:01 pm

    Such vivid memories. And such a long name for your first born!

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