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Whiskful Thinking: A Tomato Sandwich

“Whiskful Thinking” is a weekly column that explores the very Southern concept of food as a vehicle for history and storytelling. When recipes are included, each ingredient is a snapshot of time gone by, and the finished product conveys the spirit of that moment. “Whiskful Thinking” is written by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Jeremy Green.

This is the first in a series of entries loosely wrapped around food. This time, it’s a tomato sandwich and a watermelon.

Some back-story you might not want to know or might find fascinating is that I’m in the thick of nursing school. This is by nature a stressful undertaking. Before I decided saving lives would be a good idea for a living, I took a degree from Le Cordon Bleu. All those bells and whistles landed me at Gervais and Vine, that venerable Columbia establishment. At varying times I’ve been the: chef, sous chef, waiter, bartender, general boy Friday.

These days I cherish my time at that restaurant, as a person loves a dying thing: it is made more beautiful by the transience of my passage there. Not too long from now I’ll be wearing a different kind of whites: not made for deglazing a pan or checking the air for the scent of a perfectly risen loaf, but for taking vitals and checking the air for the scent of danger and vital collapse. The distinct scent of someone’s loved one dying, or living-depending on how well I do. How well the folks I work with do.

A few nights ago, in the aftermath of a lesser such calamity, I went to my mother’s home: an old house on old land where she lives an old style life. She gardens. She makes her jams and her jellies and saves seeds from one year to grow for the next. This is a woman with a story.

Her story is not so dissimilar to mine. Not so long ago (is fifteen years still “not so long ago?”) she was the lead of Respiratory at a hospital in the lower part of the state. At roughly the same age as she did, I’m trying to get a similar degree to do similar things. And just like her, the story of my life is told best with food.

That night, she made me a tomato sandwich. This simple, most Southern of sandwiches refreshed my spirits in a way that nothing else could have. The tomato from her garden was still warm from that day’s sun. The salt was coarse against my teeth and tongue, and the pepper gave its Oriental perfume. As I ate this sandwich over her kitchen sink, the juice rolled down my chin and into the steel basin. With that, something was made more right with the world. I realized then that had the circumstances surrounding that day not been so tough, I would not have appreciated that messy, healing sandwich quite so much.

The next afternoon, we picked a melon from her garden. It was small, smaller than one would think a riper watermelon could be. As she bent to pull it from the vine, I saw my future in her hands. Her hands that spent decades saving lives, and now spend her days growing life in her garden. Red juices, all: the tomato, the sweet melon, the blood that sustains us.

The little melon was rich and sweet and reminded us both of the odd balance of joy and sorrow that our lives must contain. Though picked in the heat of day, the melon was cold like the dark Carolina dirt from which it grew. We ate it there in the garden, cut it with an old brown knife that probably used to be silver.
It was all contrasts: old and young life, a fresh melon, and the presence of something akin to grace that lives in food and reminds us to go on, as everyone else has before.

A recipe, if you like:

Take a tomato from your mother’s garden. Slice it. Season it with salt and pepper. Slide it between white bread slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise and eat it over the kitchen sink. Let the juice drip down your chin, too. Think about something like grace, something just a little more transcendent, and resolve to continue, to continue in love.

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