Friday, August 27, 2010

Rubber Belly Tomato Seed

Baby Maggie

I've thoroughly enjoyed Summer Fest 2010, particularly the inventive and entertaining recipes over at Simmer Till Done. Cherry Tomato and Maytag Blue Beignets? Yes, please.

I had every intention of contributing a post on Wednesday for Tomato Week -- perhaps cioppino or a tomato tart -- but every time I sat down to write about tomatoes, all I could think about was my most vivid childhood memory, of sneaking out of the house early one morning and eating cherry tomatoes from our garden.

It must have been the August a couple of months before my second birthday, because I was old enough to walk but my brother hadn't yet been born. (Meeting him the following April after his middle-of-the-night home birth is the second most vivid memory from my childhood.) Wearing only a cloth diaper, I climbed out of my crib, creeped out of the house and toddled down the flagstone path to our backyard garden.

I don't actually remember the climbing out of the crib part, but I vividly recall standing among the rows of beans and snap peas and tomato plants, plucking cherry tomatoes straight from the vine and smashing them into my mouth. And then I was back in the house, peering over the the edge of my parents' bed on my dad's side, asking with raised arms to be picked up.

I remember my dad taking in the sight of my rubber ball of a tummy streaked with the tomato seeds and juice that pooled in my belly button, and laughing and calling me Rubber Belly Tomato Seed. And my little toddler self squealing with delight at my silly new nickname.

That last month my dad was in the hospital, I would hold his hand during the increasingly frequent procedures to drain fluid from his abdomen. It was a lengthy and anxiety-producing process involving a resident with hopefully steady hands and a very long needle in close proximity to vital organs. And it required my dad to lay very, very still.

To lighten the mood and conjure happy thoughts, I'd playfully point to his swollen belly and whisper, "Who's the Rubber Belly Tomato Seed now?" And we'd talk about that morning so long ago when he picked me up from the side of the bed and held me up above him, tomato juice raining down as he lay there on his back. And he'd tell me that his favorite thing in his whole life was scooping up his children and holding us close.

So I suppose my recipe for Tomato Week goes something like this: get some cherry tomatoes (preferably homegrown and still warm from the morning sun), smash them in your face, let the juice and seeds run down your torso and into your belly button, and hug someone you love. Because tomatoes, like life, are messy and juicy and sometimes best savored in your underwear.

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