Monday, November 06, 2006

You Say Tomato. . .

I'm a little obsessed with tomatoes recently. And more to the point, about how I can't seem to find one worth eating.

I've tried all kinds--organic, non-organic, plum, hothouse, vine ripened, cherry, grape, heirloom. I've even made attempts over the past three summers to grow my own; first right in my yard and then in large pots on my deck. But no matter what I try, nothing tastes just right. And maybe I'm trying to make them measure up to a memory that seems sweeter and more delicious with each passing year. Those tomatoes from long-ago summers spent far away from here in the home of my elderly British grandparents.

I can still remember so clearly as a child going to Wincott's, the green grocers, in Banbury. Down a winding and darkly cobbled road not far from the ancient marketplace in the town renowned for the nursery rhyme, the shop sat on a corner. Jim, whose family owned the place, always recognized my mother even if it had been years since our last visit. "How are you, luv? All right?" he'd call with a surprised and delighted smile from behind the counter when the tinkling bell announced the arrival of his latest, and quite unexpected, customer.

They would chat for a few moments and catch up. My mother would tell him about my cockney father, Sam. Having been a familiar face on his family’s market stall in Banbury for many years, he was still warmly remembered by the locals. But now he worked far away, back in the States while his family, my mother, brother and I, spent the summer with his in-laws in their tidy brick council house on Woodgreen Avenue. And as Jim and mother continued talking, my brother and I would wander through the shop, so unlike the A&P where we got our groceries in Illinois.

Artfully displayed groupings of the freshest veg lined the wooden display counters. The white cauliflowers were placed in perfect rows, the deep green pods of the delicious broad beans piled high. They were always my favorite. I loved the way the beans turned a purplish grey when cooked. And better still, I loved shucking them. The inside of their pods lined in a kind of lush lime velvet. Rich and sumptuous to the touch and smelling of earth and gentle showers, it seemed a tragic waste to discard such beauty.

And every variety of tomato sat plump and smiling, waiting to be weighed and carefully placed in their brown-bagged packets. Most were grown abroad as the British climate, so adept at growing many things, didn't usually provide adequate sunshine or the warmer temperatures that they preferred. Often, we'd buy the "misshapen tomatoes." My young brother and I would revel in their odd shapes; some like little hearts, others squared off and some like perfect teardrops. Their bright red flesh gave off a matte glow and, though beautiful in their own unique way, they were pence cheaper as they did not meet the expected, round shape of tomato perfection.

We'd pick out our favorite shapes and put them carefully in the paper bag. "About a pound," my mother directed, glancing our way while still chatting with Jim. We'd place the chosen tomatoes onto the well-worn counter for payment along with our other finds. Bunches of heavenly-scented white freesia and robust and glorious burgundy dahlias filled our small arms. Plus a pound or so of scarlet runner beans, wide and so, so long. And finally we added a larger bag of Cox's Orange Pippens, cheerful apples named like some kind of Dickens' character.

A handful of coins was usually all it took in those days before each of the packets found its way into our green string shopping bag. We'd take turns carrying the bag and the flower bunches, carefully wrapped in paper, as the three of us made our way back to the central bus station. There, we’d catch the number 11 back to the Bretch Hill stop and teatime.

Once home, Nana had already laid the table for tea. Pulling out the extra leaf from their heavy and darkly stained '30s kitchen table, she had then covered it with a pale blue and white cotton cloth still smelling of the wash line and the iron. The bone-handled stainless cutlery and Flemish green Spode sat at each place, just as it had every day for the past forty years.

We'd unload our purchases onto the grey Formica kitchen countertop. The scarlet runners went into the pantry awaiting tomorrow's 1 pm dinner. The flowers were artfully arranged in my grandmother's only crystal vase and placed on the top of their upright rosewood piano in the lounge, as they called it. The apples also went to the lounge put into Nana's only other piece of crystal, the deep fruit bowl which took pride of place on the tall, dark Welsh dresser that always smelled of lavender and wood polish. The dresser also served as my grandparent’s not-so-secret hiding place for chocolates and rose-infused Turkish Delight.

Back in the kitchen, the small brown packet of our misshapen treasures was finally torn open to reveal the tender rubies within. Gently washed and dried with a tea towel, they were then placed in a bowl and put on the table. Assorted buttery sandwiches filled another large plate; cucumber and fish paste, hearty white British cheddar with tangy, dark Branston pickle or HP Sauce, smoked ham and tomato with a tiny dab of Colman’s mustard. Each was neatly cut into halves.

Then finally, Nana would take the cake tin from the fragrant pantry and cut slices of that week's cake assortment. Fat, perfect squares of Battenberg, a checkerboard of pink and yellow cake covered in nutty and sticky marzipan. Rich and aromatic slices of dark ginger cake were also added to the serving plate along with the doughy and delicious currant buns. They had been bought that very morning at the front door from the baker paying one of his frequent door-to-door visits, a wicker basket of freshly baked treasures at his elbow.

With everything arranged, the kettle finally whistled and a pot of tea was made. Only then would we sit, my brother and I fidgeting slightly with impatience until my granddad finally joined us at the table after pulling himself away from the cricket match on the telly. We were so eager to dig in and fill our plates with our favorite sandwiches and some of our tomato finds. After a few moments of steeping, mom would pour a little milk and carefully spoon sugar into the delicate cups. She’d fill each teacup halfway and then stop to give the pot a stir before making another round of pouring, finally filling each cup to the rim with the steaming brew. That way no one would end up with a weak cup of tea, which often happened if a cup was filled on the first pouring.

Once we began eating, we all commented on the deliciousness of the oddly shaped tomatoes. Some were small enough to pop in my mouth whole, their tender skins giving way easily, but not too easily, to the pressure of my teeth. The explosion of flavor was one I still remember. They were so sweet with a hint of acidity that you wanted to linger on your tongue. Perfect.

They were the tomatoes that every tomato since has been measured against in shape, size, color and, most of all, taste. And it seems no amount of money, gardening or searching has yet revealed a fruit that can compare to those discounted, misshapen beauties. And yet like those long-ago late afternoon teatimes, their flavor and delight are still ripe in my memory.

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