On the Matter of ‘Maters
There’s not a right and a wrong way to eat a tomato. But let me tell you what’s correct.
Telltale signs provoke a slight melancholy weeks before the actual event. The morning air turns cooler and tomatoes hang sadly among withering yellow leaves that were once green and lush. The supply of Duke’s mayonnaise, whose nearly sole responsibility in our kitchen is to lubricate bread upon which ripe, juicy tomatoes are laid, is dwindling. At this point there is no avoiding the looming reality of the summer’s last tomato sandwich.
I profess not to be a purist in the matter of ‘maters. Oh sure, I still purchase that tasteless, nutritionless white bread that a good ripe tomato with mayonnaise will make soggy in no time, but I don’t limit myself to that time-honored concoction. My wife makes a wonderful Russian dark rye bread that suits tomatoes wonderfully and sometimes instead of mayonnaise my bread may be blanketed with homemade pesto and coarse mustard. Tomatoes are well suited to this cacophony of flavors.
I know that this is heresy to some but, if you think about it, heresy has provided important advancements in human history. For instance, the earth is not flat it turns out nor is it at the center of the universe, although that little proposition brought Galileo to spend the end of his life under house arrest. So let’s not be too smug about our food traditions.
In this regard, food is much the same as music. Had music from Scotland, Ireland, and England not been influenced by African American blues and gospel, there would be no bluegrass, country, or rock and roll music as we know it. So before the season’s last tomato falls from the vine, experiment a little. I highly recommend a sandwich of tomato, mayonnaise, bacon, and mushrooms sautéed with garlic on some bread that will hold together under the weight of this delicious offering. That has been my favorite concoction of the summer.
Whether one chooses to pick the sparse, lingering tomatoes of late summer while green and fry them in a cornmeal mixture or allow them to ripen for the final juicy sandwich that defines summer for many, saying a salivary farewell to the season’s last tomato is difficult.
But it need not be the end of culinary life for the next 10 months. One saving grace of the last tomato is that it comes within close proximity to apple season. The smells of simmering apples, cinnamon, melted butter, and brown sugar that accompany homemade applesauce and apple butter along with fried apples and ( if I’m particularly diligent), sweet and flaky apple dumplings help to relieve the passing of tomato sandwiches.
Our first frost in the Tennessee Valley comes on the heels of apple season and that means persimmons, a delicacy with a short window of opportunity. Unlike the larger foreign imports, our wild Appalachian persimmons are small and have about 10 pumpkin sized seeds in a fruit about the size of a quarter. They are best eaten after the first hard frost, which sweetens them to a point that possums and some humans will stand under the tree and enjoy them raw.
Tomatoes straight from the field often come in, ummm, unusual shapes.
Most of us gather them for persimmon pudding. It’s a lot of work peeling and separating pulp from seed, but the final creation of persimmon pulp, eggs, sugar, flour, milk, butter and spices cooked to a dark creamy pudding is well worth the struggle. If you don’t have access to the native persimmons or don’t have the inclination to wrestle with them, I’m told that the large persimmons found in supermarkets are worthy of substituting for the wild ones even if the taste isn’t quite as dramatic.
If we’ve had the first hard frost, then Thanksgiving must be near, providing more opportunity to suppress memory of that last tomato sandwich. Our celebration includes a large gathering of friends at a farm north of our home in Knoxville. With the hosts providing the turkey, dressing, and homemade rolls, the 20 or so guests will provide tangy appetizers, traditional and exotic side dishes, and over-the-top desserts including sweet potato pecan pie with Chantilly cream, pecan rolls and an assortment of summer berry cobblers along with enough wine to encircle the farm in a moat if that were the best use for it.
The four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas provide just enough time for the digestive system to recover before a small Christmas eve potluck dinner that features shrimp Creole, a delicious winter soup, pears poached in red wine and, if we’re lucky, an incredible pumpkin bread pudding with a butterscotch sauce made with tender challa.
The mountain persimmon, in all her glory
Now I can finish off the winter with soups made with frozen tomatoes from the previous summer’s garden. That means it’s time for the seed catalogues to arrive and I can linger over steaming coffee while choosing the next tomato varieties to accompany the Cherokee Purples. Before you know it, I’ll be heading off to the grocery store, to get a jar of Duke’s and lie in wait for the season’s first tomato. If only I can hold off until it’s fully ripened.