Monday, August 2, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: The Politics of Food and Summer Tomato Salad

And as I just wrote about Michael Pollan’s recent article noting that the food revolution has become political, it hit me: I’ve been blogging less and less about food matters here since a reader last May logged on to slam the blog right after a posting of mine (cross-posted from this site to another) happened to be mentioned by a national radio host.  My critic, who periodically logs in to tell me my faults, and who seems to be a media person himself, clearly wanted to warn any new readers of the blog about its many shortcomings.

Chief among which are, his comment noted, that I write about food.  And Southern food at that.

As I’ve noted before, it’s been clear to me for some time now that writing about food isn’t considered “serious” in some circles.  I was aware of that some years back when I wrote a preface to a serious academic book that used an extended food analogy to carry one of the main points of the preface.  I deliberately chose to push the food analogy precisely because I well knew that serious male topics like philosophy, theology, and history ought to avoid frivolous female subjects like kitchens and corn.

In my academic work, I have always liked to push (and cross) boundaries, to pretend as if they aren’t there.  To try to get people to ask serious questions about who decrees that, say, some subjects are male and others female, and male topics are serious while female topics are frothy.

Naturally, I got slapped upside the head for using a food analogy in that preface, and it got yanked out of the essay.  And, of course, the detractor who wanted to scare away any new readers of this blog who might come along due to the national radio host’s mention of my work also naturally lit on the topic he considers most telling to illustrate the lack of seriousness of this blog: he writes about food.  Southern food.

And so, without thinking about it, I have shied away from food essays since then.  And now I’m determined not to do so anymore.  It’s my blog, and I’ll do as I will with it.  And no less an authoritative culture critic than Michael Pollan has opened the door for serious discussion of food and foodways—as a political issue.

And so tomatoes, which should always be taken seriously: one of the goals I’ve had in writing about food and foodways on this blog has been to try to help younger readers, who often haven’t been raised in a culture that understands and respects traditional foods, to recover an appreciation for things like tomatoes.  

And a confidence about how to use them.

And so I want to offer some notes now about a simple, delicious tomato salad that has long been a staple of Southern tables, when tomatoes are in season, and which we eat over and over again, never tiring of it, during the summer.  It’s simple, but like many simple dishes, also sublime.

Here’s all there is to this salad: take two or three dead-ripe tomatoes and slice them up in bite-size pieces.  I recommend not slicing the tomatoes across for this recipe, since tossing ripe sliced tomatoes tends to break them up.  Hint: I find our sharp serrated bread knives do a wonderful job of slicing ripe tomatoes without tearing them apart and causing their juice to flow out.

Place the tomatoes in a salad bowl and add salt and pepper to taste.  Then add just a tad, a soupçon, of good vinegar.  I frequently use wine or cider vinegar in this dish, though I’ve also used pomegranate vinegar.   The point of the vinegar is not to add discernible vinegar flavor of the salad, but to point up the fresh taste of the tomatoes.  Everything in this salad is about tomatoes and their brilliant taste, when they’re fully vine-ripened.

Toss enough to distribute the vinegar and the salt and pepper.  Then add some thin slivers of a sweet onion (I use a Vidalia onion here)—just enough to complement and not overpower the taste of the tomatoes, which is what you want to shine.  Cut the onion very thin so that it doesn’t grab the tongue and overpower the tomato.  

I can’t really tell you how much salt, pepper, vinegar, and onion to add.  For that, you’ll need to trust your own tongue, remembering that tasting something right after you’ve added an ingredient (especially vinegar) doesn’t produce the same results as does tasting a dish after it has been allowed to sit a while.  A good rule of thumb: always add seasonings slowly rather than hastily, let a dish sit a bit, and then taste.  You can add more, but you can’t subtract what you’ve added, if you’ve overdone a flavoring.

Finally, add a healthy, but, again, not overpowering, anointing of good olive oil.  Toss again and let the salad sit a few minutes at room temperature and then serve.  A baguette of crusty french bread is a good accompaniment, since you and your guests will want to enjoy the juices produced by the salad, as well as the salad itself.  It’s considered perfectly de rigueur in my household to break the baguette into pieces, toss it into the juices in your salad dish, and then, having gloriously sopped the bread, to eat it.  Of course with your hands . . . .

This is not a salad that keeps.  Plan things so that you make just the amount you need for one meal, and then do it all over again tomorrow.  And tomorrow.

If you do happen to have a portion or two of the salad left over, it makes a delicious base for a cup or two of gazpacho soup the following evening.  To make gazpacho from it, we simply whir the leftover salad briefly in a blender, adding, if needed, a bit more tomato juice.  Then we add some finely chopped bell pepper, finely chopped cucumber, and a toe of minced garlic and serve in cups.

There are few finer salads than this simple salad of ripe tomatoes.  And if you want to shred some threads of fresh sweet basil to sprinkle across the top, please do so—but more to garnish and complement than to steal the tomatoes’ show.

Tomorrow I may tell you how to fry okra.  Well, how I like to fry it.