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To tomatoes, with belated love

| 04 Nov 2013 | 12:41

My childhood was marked by a revulsion for tomatoes. Long after I’d outgrown my suspicion of pickles and come to appreciate paté, tomato goo rendered a sandwich all but inedible to me, even if the tomatoes had been taken off. If there were no other options and I was very hungry, I’d eat it wincingly, wondering with each bite if this would be the soggy one that would trip my gag reflex.

It happened so gradually that looking back, it’s impossible to say when my feelings for tomatoes kicked into reverse. But as in any tumultuous relationship, one recalls certain watershed moments along the way. One night, driving in a full car, someone in the back seat handed me what I thought was a grape. I popped it in my mouth and discovered too late that it was a cherry tomato. I drank a lot of water and spat out the window, but that might have been the moment I discovered that eating a tomato was a thing that I could do, even if it wasn’t pleasant.

Flash forward eight years. Sitting next to me as I type is a tote bag containing a few of my garden’s heirloom tomatoes, along with bread for toasting and a Tupperware of pesto – a favorite lunch. When volunteer tomato plants popped up in the middle of our yard, despite the fact that we had more seedlings than we knew what to do with this season, I asked husband Joe if he could maybe mow around them? I’ve become an ardent lover of our “other red meat.”

As our crop of tomatoes started succumbing to blight, the fruit suddenly less abundant, I felt an urge to express my newfound passion via a culinary feat. I started perusing recipes online. I can’t remember now if it was my idea or the internet’s, but I became determined to make tomato jam, and in case that wasn’t haute cuisine enough, I’d do it using honey instead of sugar.

Over the course of a week I picked a small mountain of yellow cherry tomatoes and plucked off each little cap. I was a purist about only yellows, because I was aiming for an amber hued jam that would catch the light just so. I bought those cute little four-ounce jars that so geniusly turn a stingy helping of jam into an adorable holiday gift.

All I needed now was a free moment. But night after night, by the time the baby got to sleep it was late to start cooking. The fresh ginger I’d procured wasn’t getting any younger. The blight hadn’t found the cherry tomatoes yet, but it was only a matter of time. One weeknight, the window of opportunity opened and – although bed was tempting – it was now or never.

I got the tomatoes simmering and shuffled through my pile of recipes. There was one in particular that spoke to me, until I came across the instruction to “continue with low heat reduction for an hour.” That wasn’t happening. No problem, I’d just substitute bits from other recipes.

I rarely cook, which I was beginning to think was a shame, given the creativity and ability to roll with the punches that I was demonstrating here. I had multiple pots going on the stove and an array of jars in the oven, sterilizing. (I’d decided on the spur of the moment that while I was at it, I might as well make a pot of ketchup, too.) One day, perhaps when I had a side company making unusual small batch jams, I’d look back and remember this as the night I came into my own.

Midnight was long gone by the time I slurped a taste of my jam. There was no trace of the ginger, lemon, onion, parsley, garlic or coriander. Just tomato-flavored honey. Tomatoes and honey, while both delicious, are not so good together. Or maybe I was being hard on myself? I offered the spatula to Joe. “Tastes like honey,” he said noncommittally. Silence followed. And more silence.

It had to be asked. “Do you like it?”

“No,” he said. My temperature skyrocketed. I set my jaw against the rage that flash-boiled inside me. How about: I love that you’re trying adventurous recipes? How about: It could be good as a cheese spread?

I was way too mad to admit that, while his delicacy left plenty to be desired, Joe was right. I’d wasted two pounds of tomatoes and hours of time that could have been spent sleeping, and the kitchen was a wreck. All I wanted to do was go to bed, but I had to finish what I’d started. I spoke not a word as I poured my sad jam into those little cute four-ounce jars. I tossed the finishing touches – vinegar and brown sugar – into the pot of ketchup, stirred and tasted.

Even through the miasma of my grumpy mood, I detected a lively bite that reminded me of a Bloody Mary from a particular brunch spot in the East Village where we used to go on hungover Sundays.

“Quality control,” said Joe, plopping two veggie burgers onto toast and dousing them with my ketchup. We chewed. I refused to look at him. We chewed some more. I think we were both realizing we’d never had anything but Heinz. I peeked across the table. He nodded. I nodded. Maybe it didn’t bear the imprimatur of raw culinary genius, but it was good ketchup.