November 25, 2011

The Tomato

The first place I ever lived as a "grown up" (not a dorm, not a house with college roomies) was in a house near a park overlooking a beach. I rented a room from a nerdy single man who worked at a University and who rented rooms in his house to visiting professors and lecturers.

At the time it never occurred to me that this might be a strange or dangerous arrangement, although looking back I wonder what possessed me to do such a thing.  But I was off on an adventure, on a shoe-string no less, and would not be stopped for anything.

The man who owned the house was rarely there and I pretty much had the run of it.  I slept in my room, used the kitchen when I wasn't eating fast-food on the go and set up a little office in what looked like a den that nobody was using.  It was a satisfactory arrangement.

Periodically a note from my landlord would appear on my bedroom door -- a notice of the impending arrival of a visiting person, someone to rent The Third Room.

One day I arrived home with a bag of food from a local burger joint and entered the kitchen to find a strange man sitting at the table. He rose when I entered the room.

"Hello," he said, with a thick Russian accent. He nodded his head and took in the full length of me with a quick glance. "I am Doctor So-n-So."  He told me he was visiting for a day or two for a lecture.

I sat down as he began asking me questions about what I was doing here and questions about the area. As we talked, I opened the cheeseburger to see what condition it was in after being hastily prepared by uncaring teenage wage slaves.

Inside the burger was a big, fat tomato slice. I don't eat tomatoes.  I don't eat them because they taste like grass. And I've not understood for many years why people eat tomatoes if they taste like grass.  Finally I came to the conclusion that to most people they taste like something else. Like a tomato, I guess.  Whatever that tastes like.

As politely as possible I tried to pull the tomato off to the side and laid it on the foil wrapper my burger came in. I closed the sandwich up and started to eat and noticed The Doctor had stopped talking and was staring at my tomato all laid out on the foil, unsightly and in mayo-covered disarray.

"Why do you do that with your tomato?"

Mouth open, burger ascending toward gaping maw, I stopped and said, "What? The tomato?"  I looked at the tomato.

"Yes, why do you put your tomato to the side like that?"

"Oh," I said, now embarrassed. "I don't like tomatoes."

"May I?"

"May you what?"

"May I eat your tomato?"

"Um, sure. Really? Yes, of course."

He smiled at me in a very friendly manner and, still standing, held the tomato slice in both hands as if holding a sandwich and bit into it.

"Why you don't like tomatoes?"

Now I was becoming uncomfortable, as if he had done something really personal like announced he was going to take off his shirt and dance the macarena for me, or asked me my height and weight or told me intimate details about his current lover.

Here is the Truth:  I'm ashamed to be a picky eater.  There I said it.  But it's not just because I'm fussy.  Sometimes things just taste wrong.  Tomatoes taste like grass.  Cilantro tastes like soap.  Celery makes me barf. Mushrooms taste like old food that should have been thrown out weeks ago. But to be fair, I like a lot of stuff people don't like -- eggplant, brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and many others.

I resisted the urge to defend myself and simply said, shrugging, "I don't know. They just taste bad."

"In my country there is not a lot of food. Sometimes you wait for a long time in line to get food and then when you get to the front of the line there is no food there. If you see food you eat it whether or not you like it because you don't know when you will get more. I cannot allow food to go to waste. Everywhere I go I am always asking people if I can eat what they left over. Old habit.  I am sure people think I am very strange."

And he laughed, completely not caring if I or anyone else thought him strange. He just stood there at the table, happy to be not wasting my discarded tomato.

He should write a book called How to Make a Middle-Class American Girl Feel Like a Heel in One Easy Step.

To this day I cannot take a tomato off a sandwich without thinking of him.


  1. The tomatoes from groc stores are so much unlike the tomatoes from my vines in my backyard. Even the ones that claim "vine ripened".

  2. I'm allergic to cilantro, and to me it tastes like soap too!

  3. Great post and lesson on being grateful and aware of what we have. Thank you!

  4. But to be fair, I like a lot of stuff people don't like -- eggplant, brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and many others.

    This explains everything.

  5. I love this story, Wendy! Mostly, I love your telling of it.

    I am actually a very picky eater, too. I like ethnic food the most, because of being a vegetarian, but I am picky within that category. I will not use fresh ginger. I hate cloves or anything licorice-ish tasting. I will not ever eat coconut.I modify recipes ALL THE TIME.

    I get what the man was saying. But really. If something tastes like grass, how could you possibly eat it? :)

  6. I'm sure he was telling the truth, and I would have felt terrible in that situation, too!

  7. What a great story, Wendy. Thanks for sharing. I can almost hear the thick Russian accent, see the scene. Best comeback I ever heard to those war guilt trips and the "starving children of Africa" claims at our dinner table was from a friend that calmly and with all the poise a nine-year-old shouldn't have, said to my mother, "well, you're welcome to send my food to them." No, my mother did not think it was funny.

  8. esbboston: Once I grew some Beefsteak tomatoes myself and tried a very thin slice on a sandwich and I just very nearly figured out what people can like about tomatoes.

    J9: Wooo, I feel excited that I found another cilantro-soap person. Everyone tells me I'm crazy. (Well, that part is true, but for other reasons.)

    Bridgette, thanks for coming by! These days it's especially nice to make sure we're not wasteful when there are people who need so much. My family and I do a thing called The Fifth Meal. You can read about it here:

    Stephen: Not quite everything, just the parts about how my brain functions better than the average person because 1) I avoid celery and 2) I eat all those veggies that make you have good brain power.

  9. Jaz, the first time I ate eggplant and cooked spinach were both at an awesome Indian food restaurant in California. A well-traveled friend of mine dragged me kicking and screaming, ignoring my terrified whines that I didn't want to try anything so strange. But I did and now those are some of my favorite dishes!

    Eva, I'm accustomed to feeling like a doofus, it happens so frequently. :)

    Guilie, kids these days!!

  10. ....and the Russian lecturer would be appalled to learn that I don't, well can't, eat fish. The stuff makes me violently ill -- I blame it on the presumed mercury.

    But I figure we all should be a bit embarrassed at the food we discard. You just happened to caught at it.

    I enjoyed this.

  11. Great story! Oddly I don't like tomatoes in my salad or on a sandwich but I don't mind a fresh tomato on top of a piece of crostini with some mozzarella. It's amazing how different everyone's taste for food is. Like your description of cilantro. I used to hate it, it used to make me tear up but in a salsa it tastes great. I don't like the taste of beets and think that tastes like dirt and green tea just reminds me of the underneath of someones armpit, GROSS!!

  12. In Australia cilantro is called coriander, (from the Greek κορίαννον) and when fresh it tastes like damp cardboard. It is widely used to ruin a variety of asian dishes.

  13. I was in Russia in the eighties. The food was boring as (no tomatoes) and there were line ups for food everywhere, it must have taken the whole morning to buy a loaf of bread.
    I like the way you write, a nice post, you set the scene and get right to the point.

  14. Jerry, I'm sorry you can't eat fish! I think in general we waste so much food. If I know there is something I won't eat in a restaurant or wherever I try to make sure it doesn't reach my table so at least I don't have to throw it away. I hate the waste.

    Loredana, I'll take your green tea. :)

    Chris, "widely used to ruin a variety of asian dishes"... you ALWAYS crack me up.

    Julie, thanks. :) I have never been to a place where food is a scarcity like that. Or water. Such a terrifying horrible prospect.


Tell me what's on your mind!