“Two hundred and forty-seven pounds of tomatoes this year” exclaimed my father in law. “Last year was about one hundred and eighty. A few years ago was only about eighty. But we did get almost two hundred a few years ago.”
My father in law is very proud of his horticultural talents. Indeed, his and my mother-in-law’s yard in the Silicon Valley suburb of Sunnyvale is very different from their neighbors’ yards. These days most yards are carefully manicured by landscapers – hired by Valley engineer types who spend a lot of their time indoors. Where we live, a reference to clouds isn’t necessarily meteorological.
My in-laws’ annual yield includes not only tomatoes; but also, figs, persimmons, assorted beans, arugula, broccoli, citrus of all kinds, guavas, apricots, and pluots. Of these, the figs, persimmons, and pluots turn me into a ravenous glutton. I try to balance my glycemic intake with arugula and broccoli binges. Once, early in my relationship with their daughter- I arrived at a family potluck having bought tomatoes from the store.
“Ack! He bought tomatoes. HE BOUGHT TOMATOES!” I was pretty sure I was done for and that my eventual wife would have broken up with me citing paternal disapproval.
We brought my parents to my wife’s childhood home during one of their visits to California from Hawaii. The set of parents immediately bonded over their gardens. My father and mother eagerly ate not quite ripe figs and gorged on my father-in-law’s Brandywine tomato harvest.
“That was the best tomato I ever had” remarked my father. This was high praise for a man who raised vegetables for his own family. In fact, my father and mother harvested enough vegetables that they sold the surplus to supplement our educational fund.
But my dad loved tomatoes. He could, and often did, eat them like apples. His favorite way to eat one was to crack a tomato.
“Inka ag crack ti kamatis” he would say before dinner – Go crack a tomato. Cracking a tomato involved a very specific technique. First, you took the stem off. Standard enough. Then you shoved both thumbs into the top of the tomato. It was a sensation similar to eye gouging. Your fingernails pierced the skin of the tomato with a snap, breaking through the meaty pericarp wall. You knew you were in the tomato by the immediate temperature change resulting from the plunge of your thumbs into the juicy interior. If it was an extra juicy tomato, the seed-filled placenta would burst inside the distended locular cavity. With a firm grip, you started tearing, letting the juice drip down into a bowl. The pericarp is edible enough, but you needed to tear the septa and the columella into bite-sized pieces. Most people would throw out these glandular organs and the core, but waste not want not. Often times, if I was making a meal just for my father and me, then I just cracked a tomato right over a steaming serving of white rice. Lastly, I added the pièce de résistance: a dash or two of patis, a sauce made from fermented fish and salt.
For my father and I, this could be an entire meal: hot steamed rice, a cracked tomato, and a dash or two of patis. If we were feeling feisty, we added a scrambled egg to the mix. Always scrambled, never fried. I never saw my father eat a fried egg. The addition of sweet Maui onion slivers or diced green onions was reserved for a particularly festive occasion like when nobody was upset with anybody else or nobody was drunk by dinner time.
I still have this meal some mornings. Nobody has this meal with me. I have it after my wife leaves for work and my kids are dropped off at school. On mornings when I manage a vigorous workout and my schedule is clear, I often take some time to meditate or pursue some other form of constructive introspection. Then the meal starts by cracking an egg into a bowl. I fork whisk the egg for a count of ten, while slowly rotating the bowl. Right before the oil in the mini omelet pan starts to smoke, I pour in the egg. I pan scramble for another ten seconds – but not as vigorously as the first scramble. I’m really just folding the cooked edges into the raw custardy inside. I pan flip the egg – no spatula needed – and turn off the heat. While the egg is sitting on the still hot pan, I paddle some steamed brown rice onto a small dish – the heartier grain being the only deviation from my father’s choice of more milled rice. Then I crack the kamatis, following with one dash of patis over the gouged tomato, juice, and rice. I slide the plain omelet onto the red, white, and soused pile. One more dash of patis to finish.
I sit alone and slowly eat with my hands, the way my father always did. Kamet he would call it. You gather your fingertips to a point similar to the Multi-Touch Launchpad gesture on a MacBook trackpad. If you manage to gather some food in this way, you rotate your wrist to turn your cupped hand upward towards your face. Then you use your thumb to shovel food through the scooped channel of your fingers into your mouth. As I enjoy my breakfast, I think of my father and the simple meal he and I shared. Alone, the silence also reminds me that we shared more meals than words.