We had to spend half a month's paychecks to replace our car's air-conditioning on Monday. We were sitting in the waiting area when we found out, working on our computers with the lounge's free wifi, and we only agreed to go…
Tim and I got a new bathroom ceiling this week. First, we got a massive ceiling bubble that Tim had to pop with a knife, straddling the toilet and the tub, a five-gallon bucket in his other hand while water shot from the ceiling cyst like milk from a cow; but then, beginning Wednesday and ending, hopefully, right around the time this post publishes, a nice handyman named Jim patched and worked and painted things, and our ceiling looked like a ceiling again. I’m not afraid to use the bathroom anymore, and I don’t have to drive down the street to White Castle to sneak into the ladies’ room, so obviously things are looking up. Also, Monday night and Tuesday night, like rewards for the days we’d survived and laughed through, the two of us sat down to matching plates piled high with salads like this one. Even I have to admit it’s hard to complain when your plate is full of this.
The month of August has been a quiet one for us. Expected guests had to cancel at the last minute, plans changed and, while you’d think this would be the sort of thing to discourage us, in fact, it’s been the opposite. We’ve been dealing with the wide-open weekends of Tim’s homemade pancakes, afternoons spent writing, evening walks in the park, impromptu trips to thrift stores or out for tacos. The weather’s even cooperated, moving from the abrasive 100s to more reasonable upper 80s, making it a little easier to enjoy cooking in the kitchen again. For years, Tim’s told me about his homemade Chinese food, and this August has been his chance to take a few hours in the kitchen to show me. I’ve baked cookies without recipes. We’ve slow-cooked vegetables via Marcella Hazan. And not once, not twice, but three times, we’ve made homemade kefir-soaked spelt pizza crusts, topped by peaches and spinach and goat cheese.
In so many ways, August has been a contrast to the months before it, in which we’ve hosted out-of-town guests or traveled ourselves, and, to make up for the hours we’d be missing, worked double-time beforehand. In the same way that you appreciate your sophomore English teacher so much more because you disliked your freshman one, we’ve been basking in the beauty of this August and its slow, steady schedules.
Most Tuesday nights, we share dinner with Tim’s brother, Nathan, who lives about a mile or two away, in the house where Tim lived before October. Every other week, by the time he arrives, we’re also unpacking our biweekly CSA haul, a tightly packed bushel box of yellow squash and watermelon and sweet corn and tomatoes and so on, which we pick up from the 12 South Farmers Market held late Tuesday afternoons. On one particular week, we’re pulling away from the market, not yet home, when I catch an image on Instagram of a peach-topped pizza. Despite the loot in our back seat, we beeline for the grocery.
At home, we launch into our biweekly routine, Tim slicing up watermelon that we snack on while we divvy up the goods. Meanwhile, I mix together a pizza crust, letting it soak in the warmest spot above our oven.
By the time Nathan arrives, the August sun is lowering, the house enjoying that late-summer twilight that turns everything golden and dim, and two pizzas are in the oven, one on a stone and one on a baking sheet.
That first time is magic: crackery crust, sweet and soft peaches, the tang of goat cheese mixed with drizzles of honey. We eat it on the sofa, piece after piece after piece, the three of us flipping through channels on TV, occasionally interrupting the programming to marvel at the way the crust holds up or the way the edges have a faint hint of Saltine.
When Nathan leaves, it’s barely 8 p.m., so Tim and I clean up the dishes and put away the leftovers and take a drive, headed nowhere in particular, off to enjoy a lazy summer night, with nothing to do. I say to him, This August has been like one long date!, enough that I almost feel guilty!, and he says to me, I know.
Tim and I live in the downstairs of a 1940s-style house; I may have mentioned this before. If you walk into our living room from the front porch, you see built-ins around the fireplace, stuffed with the combined libraries of 20+ years of separate lives: a few textbooks, many novels, the guidebook and accompanying tapes for a ‘How to Speak Italian’ course. For the first few months we lived together, the mantel between these shelves was completely bare; December brought a $5 fresh pine wreath from Aldi, which we left mounted weeks past New Year’s; we finally threw it in the fireplace in February, planning to watch it burn, but it’s still sitting there. In its stead are perched a giant canvas engagement shot, a few framed prints and a wooden letter “M” I spray-painted white in a few Pinterest-driven weeks last winter.
Besides the ottomans and the rug, everything in this living room is either from our previous apartments or hand-built by Tim; that’s true in most of the house. The leather couch: from his old apartment with two other guys. The coffee tables: my former nightstand and Tim’s former filing cabinet. As we usher you through to the dining room, we’ll give you the biographies of the entertainment center (built a few weeks before the wedding), the dining table (finished in those days when I was in Chicago making wedding favors) and the buffet (brought to our house just after we got rid of our first Christmas tree).
It’s a small and cozy two-bedroom, just the sort of place you’d think of when you think young newlyweds. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm, with beat-up hardwood floors, painted but paneled walls, white crown molding and natural light brought in through lots of windows—at least one in every room.
While you’re sitting at the table, we might tell you how last summer when we toured apartments, this place was last in the long line of possibilities we looked through and, by far, the best. I’d kept a list back then, with all the things we’d hoped for in our future home: an extra bedroom, a garage, windows in the bathroom and kitchen. This place had every one. And sometimes, still, we can’t believe we live here.
After we hand you your plates, piled high with baby spinach and roasted peaches and goat cheese, we might whisper that we’d stay forever if it weren’t for the smell of smoke filling our bathroom lately or the strange phenomenon we witnessed when our neighbor removed items from our trash can and took them to his backyard (!), or the growing desire we both have to plant a garden and, to watch it grow.
We talk to you from the kitchen, a white, 100-square-foot galley-style space with gray laminate countertops and a floor our landlord laid before we moved in (chosen primarily, we think, because it’s the cheapest kind they sell at Home Depot). There’s a white stone bowl with red tomatoes to the left of the sink and a handful of peaches set beside it.
Tim and I cooked together when we lived in different states and would visit for quick weekends; we cooked together when we lived in Nashville in different houses and traded dinners at his place or mine; but now, in this little house, we cook together constantly, swapping tasks and sharing chores for every meal.
I wipe down the counters one last time before we join you at the table, and Tim reaches into the fridge, past spinach and Pecorino and yesterday’s zucchini fritters, to grab the water pitcher, which, we apologize, is for some reason, the only drink we have on hand today.
Around the table, sitting at mismatched chairs beneath a vintage glass chandelier with cobwebs on it, we look at our plates, like we do most nights, and they’re as colorful and full as any from a five-star salad course in town.
With you, we give thanks. Because if any part of our simple, newlywedding life is mature and adult-like and settled, it’s not our careers or our furniture or our savings plans—in truth, we’re more likely to buy extra produce than new stocks—sitting before the spread before us, enjoying it with you, we know, it’s this, the way we eat.
I’m an elementary kid, spending a few summer days at my grandma’s house, and when she says she wants to make sauce for dinner, I know it means stepping from the dining room onto the back porch, down steps to the yard and its back-corner garden, where we’ll pull ripe tomatoes straight from the vine. The first time I ever see tomatoes growing in the ground and not stacked up neat and shiny at the store is in this yard, the same yard where my brother and I fight with water guns and talk to the the neighbor’s dogs through a chain-link fence and step on massive ant hills in the holes of Grandma’s concrete driveway.
Over 20 years later, I’m an adult, and I’ve grown other plants and I’ve stepped in other yards, but still, when I think of tomatoes, I think of Grandma’s garden, the one bordering her lilac bush and the neighbor’s fence, and of the weeks of harvest it would give each year. And lately in Nashville, as our Tuesday pickups are piled high with tomatoes—orange, red, yellow; big and grape—I hold the box of them, inhaling their scent, which is as much summer as it is that plot of land in Maywood, and I think what a gift this time of year is, what a blessing filled with rich fruit, tomatoes that are not even worth comparing with what you find at the store in January, not even close.
So in the midst of this, when Nicole says to me one Friday afternoon, in a quick email conversation about risotto and cooking and tomato jam that, hey, speaking of tomatoes, you might like to know about this, referring to the upcoming campaign she’ll be launching, through her organization The Giving Table, to have food bloggers come together to encourage some sort of change to end slavery in Florida tomato fields, I’m kind of confused.
All I can say is I didn’t know—because maybe I’m one of the rare Americans who had never read Mark Bittman’s New York Times article last summer; never heard of Barry Estabrook’s book when it came out; never crossed paths with someone talking about International Justice Mission’s summer program, “Recipe for Change,” a campaign to end slavery in Florida’s tomato fields.
But Tim and I get reading articles and seeing statistics and saying to each other, This is insane! We were just in Florida! It’s happening here, not three hours south of where we laid by the beach! And I’m getting that horrible sick feeling in my stomach, the one that comes from seeing you’ve been unaware, from seeing what you have not seen—that it’s not just better-tasting tomatoes I’m getting when I grow them in a garden or pick them up from a local farmer or buy some at Whole Foods; it’s tomatoes that have been fairly harvested, without slavery, abuse, mistreatment and other tragedies that are occurring now, here:
A third of our fresh tomatoes are grown in Florida, and much of that production is concentrated around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”) … The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water … Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid. – from “The True Cost of Tomatoes,” Mark Bittman, The New York Times, 6/14/11
Mariano Lucas Domingo discussed being locked in a tomato box truck for 15 hours one day by his employer, Cesar Navarrete. The Immokalee farmworker had to find his way out, he said, and then help others. – from “Brothers Receive 12-Year Prison Terms in Immokalee Human Slavery Case,” Steven Beardsley, Naples News, 12/19/08
The idea behind today’s campaign is that bloggers are donating their posts to raise awareness for a very real problem of oppression. Some facts:
- Over the past 15 years, there have been seven cases of forced labor slavery successfully prosecuted, resulting in the release of over 1,000 people being treated unfairly in U.S. tomato fields.
- IJM’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has developed, along with the tomato pickers themselves, what’s called The Fair Food program, which works against the slavery, child labor and serious sexual abuse happening in Immokalee, Florida, by setting clear standards against them.
- Supermarkets and fast-food chains and other retailers who join The Fair Food program pay a little more ($0.015 higher per pound) for their tomatoes, but are guaranteed they’ve been fairly harvested.
- What The Giving Table, with International Justice Mission, wants to accomplish this summer is for more companies to sign this pledge, so that as purchases shift from fields improperly treating workers to those adhering to fair standards, the issue of slavery can be abolished.
Would you consider raising your voice to do something about the issue of abuse happening here in America? McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have already endorsed the pledge, but many major retailers have not. Here are a few ways to help:
- With your pocketbook: Buy tomatoes from local farmers—or from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, both of which are already on board with the Fair Food program.
- With your computer: Take two minutes and send a message to execs of the major supermarket chains yet to sign the pledge, asking them to change their stance. (It’s as simple as filling out your name/email and hitting send)
In light of Recipe for Change and today’s campaign, Food Bloggers for Slave-Free Tomatoes, we’ve created this roasted tomato and goat cheese tart, made with tomatoes grown right here in Tennessee, from the local farm that supplies our CSA.
As soon as we left Tim’s birthday lunch at Table 3 last week, we began plotting ways to re-create part of our appetizer: the savory lentils beneath our crispy duck confit. I am telling you, these lentils were something else: soft but not mushy, loaded with flavor, concrete proof that lentils will take on the character of whatever you mix them with.
It kind of cracked me up the way were talking about it—Was that tarragon, or was it thyme? Did you catch that little bit of sweetness in the beginning? The oil is just right!—because, seriously, for as long as I can remember, this has been something my mom does: she loves the lamb stew she orders at a restaurant, so the next day she’s buying lamb at the meat counter. I make her a crustless quiche, so she’s blending eggs and spinach the very day she gets back home.
And I guess that makes me my mother’s daughter because, even beyond the lentils, I’ll be darned if half our wedding wasn’t the result of someone else’s great idea on Pinterest. The unmatching vintage plates? Something I saw on a blog or in a magazine. The banquet-style tables? Something someone else did, too. Now, from the burlap wreath on our front door to the way our dining chairs don’t match, I’m always pulling from someone else’s concept, riffing on it to make it my own.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s any real creativity possible in the world—I draw inspiration from so many sources and places; is it even possible to come up with ideas without it?
As for these lentils: by the time we’d left our afternoon movie, we’d narrowed down most of the ingredients we thought we’d tasted, and so we picked them up at the store. I kept telling Tim how great it would be to get this recipe right because lentils are so cheap and so simple and yet they’re one of those foods I’ve always been a little intimidated by, as if making them well was reserved for the Really Good Cook.
So here is what we did. Saturday, I soaked the lentils overnight; yesterday morning, Tim cooked them in water and set them aside. Then, in the afternoon, in the course of maybe 20 minutes total, we set to work: heating oil, adding tomatoes and almonds and thyme, combining this mixture with the lentils and topping the whole thing with goat cheese.
I think the first words out of my mouth were something like, They’re just like those lentils!
And this, while maybe not a mark of creativity, in my mind was a real success.