Friday, October 15, 2010

How I learned to like tomatoes

I am a success story.

My grandma likes to tell a story about how when I was little, I would only eat things that were white. Milk, pasta, potatoes, white bread, butter, salt, cheese, saltines, and nothing else.

I'm sure this is an exaggeration. I don't remember ever not liking meat, but it's true that for a very long time, I was very picky. I didn't like chocolate until I was eight. I wouldn't eat any vegetable (especially a vegetable that had not been through a blender) except onions and asparagus until I was well into high school, and I gagged whenever I tried to swallow a bite of carrot. My version of a salad was caesar dressing and all the croutons I could eat. My family has a pasta sauce recipe that's been handed down for generations, that reputedly goes all the way back to our ancestors in Sicily, and while I loved the way it made the house smell, I could not bring myself to eat pasta if it was covered in tomatoes. I ate my spaghetti with lots of butter and lots of salt, and I liked it.

My mom and I had a fight once when I was in high school, when I refused to touch a pico de gallo that she had made and of which she was proud. She accused me of refusing to eat her food as a way of getting attention, or something like that. "If I actually liked it, I would eat it!" I retorted. "Don't you think I would be happier if everything I tried were delicious?"

That got me thinking. Why couldn't everything be delicious? Why was I afflicted so?

So I started working on tomatoes. I could eat them in pizza, after all! So I tried my mom's Campbell's tomato soup, with milk substituted for the water to make it richer, and with enough shredded mozzarella that gooey strings stuck to the spoon with every bite. That wasn't so bad! Campbell's quickly became a staple easy-food with me. Eventually I got bored and tried mixing in powdered ginger, or bits of caramelized onions, and even when I was lazy the cheese eventually became shredded cheddar or mexican blend. Shredded mozzarella was boring! Then there was a spicy sweet potato tomato soup at Mary's Market in the town where I lived during high school (I hesitate to call Rockford my hometown because a) I have moved several times and b) I hated it there). Wow! Not only not horrible, but exciting and different.

Then the tomato sauce itself. I started by picking out the chucks of sausage and ground beef that had been simmered for hours in tomato paste and tomato chunks and god-knows-what-other-kinds of processed tomatoes. It was not great at first, but I practiced eating it every time it got made, and eventually added all of the ingredients to my pre-dinner custard bowl of sauce. Then I tried it actually on spaghetti, with lots of parmesan, and found that I loved it. Victory! I modified my comments: "I don't like raw tomatoes," I told people.

College changed the way I ate. I ate fried rice (Rice? Brown?! Heresy!) at a pan-Asian place for the first time, fell in love with hummus at Cedars, raved over smoked tea duck in Chinatown, went to an Ethiopian restaurant of all places, and got over a lot of my fear of trying things. But when I came home at the end of my second year, I still hadn't gotten to raw tomatoes. But hot weather makes me crave light fare, and when Mom suggested insalata caprese, I was game. And would you believe it? I liked it so much that when dinner finally came around, we had to make more because I had already eaten what was meant to serve three.

I think I am a supertaster. For a long time, new flavors were overwhelming. But somewhere along the line those flavors have started to become less scary and more of a powerful sensation. It's a good thing! So now even when I order something safe off the menu, I always try everything that everybody else at the table is having. I haven't regretted it yet.

So moms with kids who don't eat greens, don't give up yet. Someday they'll get it, and they'll realize you were right all along. They'll whip up salads for afternoon snacks, make all their sandwiches on whole wheat bread with crusts on, and swear off colas forever.

I still think a lot about what and when and how I eat, so I decided to write those thoughts down. Heaven knows I don't do enough writing. I intend for this blog to chronicle my learning how to really appreciate good food. It will include restaurant reviews and recipes both borrowed and improvised. But you'll never get my pasta sauce; that's a famiglia secret.

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