5 min  Slice of life

How to Make a Tomato Sandwich

HollyQuan

Carrie huddles by a window, cradling a cup of tea more for warming her hands than for sipping. It’s cold. Of course it’s cold, it’s January. The sun is on vacation somewhere far to the south, which also means it’s dark where Carrie lives. She sighs and switches on the lamp over her shoulder. Two in the afternoon and she’s turning on lights. Remind me again why I live here, she thinks.

She longs for a sweet hint of summer, some way to restore her possibly misplaced optimism there are actually warmer days ahead. She doesn’t want anything complicated. No trip to a foreign beach, no tanning bed. Something simple — and immediate. What about a tomato sandwich? Yes! That would certainly work wonders. A quick trip to the store and she’ll be set. Boots, sweaters, scarves, mitts, and she’s out the door with a tiny smile. In twenty minutes she’ll be back home and slicing into an antidote to the midwinter blues.

But the only fruit available is thick-skinned and anemic. She buys anyway, plods homeward through sorrowful snowfall, transporting a bag of what, in January, passes for tomatoes. In her dim kitchen, grimly anticipating disappointment, Carrie stabs a so-called tomato to release a dribble of insipid juice. The soupy slices have the consistency of dead fish and are every bit as appealing.

March. One day is warm, the next welcomes a blizzard. Where’s spring? Carrie’s sun-starved face is pale as the moon, her parched tongue yearns for one thing only: a sweet-tart ripe tomato. She dreams that full lush flavour, she wakes with that particular sharpness in her mouth. Still no worthy produce on offer at the supermarket. She gives up believing she’ll solve this obsession any time soon.

Instead, she trolls online seed catalogues replete with lurid photos of luscious fruit — a gift of diversion in these terrible harsh days. Seeds are hopeful, she thinks. What’ll it be? Beefsteak? Meh... OK but pedestrian. Early Girl? Heirloom Long? Scotia? Sub-Arctic Plenty — hey, that sounds promising! Italian Stallion — seriously? Brandywine, with lovely rich sunset colours? Roma? Hmm, good for sauce but Carrie wants a standout sandwich tomato. Crisp enough so thin slices will hold their shape, juicy enough to make a little trickle down her chin when she bites, tart enough to satisfy her fixation: the perfect balance of sugar and acid, yin and yang. Is that umami? Then it’s about yield, and ripening time — 60 days from seed to sandwich. An eternity! Perhaps Aurora? Or Eros, because who could resist a tomato called Eros? Fine: Beefsteak it is.

Early in cruel April, Carrie’s seed order arrives. In still-milky afternoon light that holds no perceptible warmth, she fills many (too many) little pots with moist soil. She opens the seed packets, shakes out palmfuls of pellets, pushes them down until dirt pushes back under her chipped fingernails. Now, pots perch on every windowsill until the night she must whisk them all to the safety of her kitchen table when cold returns and frost decorates the inside of her entirely inadequate windowpanes.

Then it’s miraculous May. Sprouts! Stems! Leaves! Outside, the breeze is chilly but sunshine is seductive, affectionate. Carrie moves baby tomato plants to bigger containers on her deck where they’re sheltered from the everlasting wind. The babes grow. Plants are brave, she thinks. One night the cold returns and snow decorates her deck. In a panic she drags old sheets from the closet and covers her tomatolets oh so carefully. Despite her vigilance, some give up but others soldier on.

Days. Nights. Weeks. July now. A century since Carrie pushed seeds into soil. Daylight is long and hot, but her tomatoes are the size of marbles. What do they want? She fertilizes and waters and sings to them and rotates the pots. Following online instructions that guarantee a successful crop, she pinches late flower buds to encourage marble expansion. She waves an empty seed packet over the plants, with its bright and probably digitally altered picture of magnificent, meaty fruit. Hint, hint.

Days. Nights. Weeks. Incremental, glacial progress but eventually there they are — huge and glossy, crimson globes hang from thick bristly stems. Sweet relief at last. On a humid August morning, hair prickling her damp neck, Carrie twists off a hefty sun-warmed tomato, glowing and tender as a peach, carries it reverently into the kitchen. Places it on the counter. It’s adorable. It’s the fulfillment of a long promise. She can’t even look.

Instead, Carrie toasts two pieces of thick, dark whole-wheat bread and slathers the slices with creamy mayo. She gently, tenderly washes the fruit. Chooses a serrated blade, feeling like a murderer. Takes a deep breath — and slices! Juice squirts, seeds glisten, that peculiar flinty oystery tang fills her nose. Acid stings a cut on her finger. Her slices reveal seeds, flesh.

She places shiny tomato disks onto the waiting bread. Sprinkles chunks of sea salt, grinds exotic black pepper that makes her sneeze. Closes the sandwich. And does this:

Lift. Inhale. Bite. Smile.

Exhale. Exhale. Exhale. Ooh, yeah.

Ah, tomato. Ah, summer. Promise. Fulfilled.

Image of HollyQuan

HollyQuan

Holly Quan has been freelancing since 1988, writing film scripts, newspaper and magazine articles, technical reports and non-fiction books. In 2000, Holly moved from Calgary to a small town in the Alberta foothills. That transformation inspired her first novel, The Sow’s Ear Café, published in March 2018 and available at www.hollyquan.ca

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