Tomato Cobbler

Telling you that today is the first Friday in 16 months that a 7 a.m. post didn’t publish here feels very meta, as one of my grad school professors used to say. Back in those days, when we were reading heavy essays by literary critics like Foucault, workshopping stories on a weekly basis, being ever surrounded by writers who were writing to other writers about writing, and then talking about it together, as writers, anyone who popped his or her head out of our little world for even a moment would see that meta discourse gets weird. A little too in your head. Analytical. Buried in layers. I had basically decided to avoid it here, no more blogging about blogging, you’re welcome, until here we were this Friday morning without a scheduled post, and so this afternoon I got thinking about the reasons we blog again (see “The Value of Blogging” or “Confessions on the Day before Four Years“), right as I scooped out the last bowl of tomato cobbler and ate.

Tomato Cobbler

I made the cobbler Wednesday afternoon.

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Picnicking and a Grape Galette

“The proper attitude toward a picnic is somewhat devil-may-care. You do not have to stand in the kitchen cutting perfect sandwiches and making perfect potato salad or frying chicken (although every once in a while an old-fashioned picnic is just the right thing). So what if all you have in the fridge is leftover rice, a couple of scallions, and a jar of almonds? You may have invented a lovely new rice salad, and no one will care if it is not their usual, because you are on a picnic.” — Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking

picnicking

If there’s anything better than spending a summer night outdoors, it’s spending a summer night outdoors, in a vineyard, with a bag full of picnic food and blankets. Around here, our typical version of Colwin’s “rice salad,” tends to look like bread, fruit, cheese and chocolate, along with whatever leftovers or sauces or sides we can drum up on our way out the door. Let me tell you, nothing tastes better than that humble spread, set out in the fresh air and golden daylight, while you wave off gnats and listen to kids playing tag on the hill below. Picnics like these, to me, are summer—the very essence of longer days and freer schedules and warm air on your cheeks. You could eat grapes and bread in the car or or on the sofa or at the kitchen table, but taking them to grassy fields reminds you of the season you are in, of the time that’s moving ever forward, of the need to stop and savor it and drink it in.

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Kendra’s Honey Oat Grapefruit Scones

april in chicago
us

Tim and I came home yesterday from a quick weekend visit to Chicago. The first time we’ve been back since Christmas, this trip was a whirlwind of loud, excited family conversation, the kind that leaves you out of breath, with everyone talking over everyone else; long, lazy mornings, the ones you almost forgot how much you loved, complete with a certain white, fluffy dog breaking down gates and waiting outside your bedroom door until you let him in; a blog meetup downtown, organized by the just-as-lovely-in-person! Nicole of Eat This Poem, whose months-ago idea for extending her work conference led to a Saturday lunch made up of six people who’d driven, taken trains, walked city blocks and navigated parking garages to come out and share a few hours with some of the Internet voices they find dear.

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Einkorn Cannoli Cupcakes

Cannoli Cupcake | FoodLovesWriting.com

When I was a kid, my parents would dart around the house in the final moments before company arrived, lighting candles, cleaning bathrooms, setting appetizers out just right. You could feel the energy in the air in those almost-game-time minutes—a sort of nervous, happy energy—something greater than the sound of my mom’s boom box playing its background harps or violins. When the doorbell rang, my dad would rush to the door, opening it proudly, beaming, welcoming guests inside as he took their coats and greeted them, motioning my brother and me to come say hi. Then, my mom would emerge from the kitchen, winded but obviously delighted at whatever was in her hands, prompting oohs and ahs and questions from the ones who’d been invited to come. Each one meal and its accompanying conversation would take two or three—maybe four or five with particularly talkative friends—hours before dishes were being cleared and the food getting wrapped up and people’s coats being pulled back out to usher them to their cars. But, as any host could tell you, its planning began long before, sometimes as much as a month ahead of time. Long before the good china was on the dining room table, I’d see my mom jotting down a potential menu and shopping list; I’d be around when she tested recipes before deciding to serve them to company; I’d be there the week of the dinner, when my parents talked about what they were making and at what time guests would arrive.

As an adult myself, I’ve followed my parents’ footsteps, often clumsily, feeling my way from the early days of solo hosting (where, once, my guest and I continued working on the uncooked chicken together after she arrived), to my current stage of couple hosting (where Tim and I tag-team the process).

Over time, I’ve grown more confident. Having one person for dinner isn’t stressful; having two is usually okay; but, last weekend, when we hosted Tim’s entire family for an early celebration of Easter and the annual April birthdays (of which, in his family, there are four), and we had ten people at our table more than once, I have to admit the experience felt completely new.

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Tim’s Famous Overnight Pancakes

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Looking ahead to Friday’s post begins for me, usually, sometime on Wednesday, which this week was the gray and shady afternoon in which Tim and I ventured way out to the west side of town, to Bellevue, the Nashville neighborhood of older shopping plazas and brand-new housing communities where Perl, a new-to-us café Yelp users compare to Marché and Scoutmob currently has a deal on, is located. Armed with my Christmas gift of a yellow Anthropologie journal and wearing the gray-and-white-striped vintage dress I found last week at Goodwill’s sale, I sat with Tim through 20 minutes of highway and unfamiliar neighborhoods and launched into the purpose of our midweek date: quizzing him about big dreams for the future. “So tell me,” I began. “If there were no limits and no obstacles, what would you want to do this year? What do you wish you could work towards? What are your big dreams?”

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Roasted Tomato & Goat Cheese Tart [+ slave-free tomatoes]

tomatoes on vine

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.

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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.

tomatoes

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.

chopped tomatoes

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

roasted tomatoes

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.

grape tom_roasted tom

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)

tomato tart from above

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.

tomato tart on the table

For more information on slavery happening in American tomato fields, visit the websites of The Giving Table, Recipe for Change and Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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Avocado Fries + Yogurt Sauce

sliced avocados

Two days into our honeymoon, Tim and I are eating lunch at a taco hut near our condo, a whitewashed building where the windows are always open and the ceiling fans are always moving, and the hot Hawaiian breezes blow in and out leisurely, matching the pace of the island where we’re staying, palm tree branches rustling in the wind.

On the porch in front, there’s a cardboard box set up on a bar stool with a sign that reads, “$0.25 each” and which holds a dozen or so avocados, each of them half the size of Tim’s head, and there’s no one around to collect payments, just a large glass jar, so after looking at each other in disbelief, still amazed that we’re in Kauai, let alone that we’re paying 1/8 of what we’d pay for avocados in the states, we grab a handful of dark green, alligator-skinned fruits, leave our money and go.

bowls of flour, egg, bread crumbs

As far as foods go, avocados are the closest thing I know to magic, and not just when you’re eating them on your honeymoon. They’re cool and creamy, filling, versatile enough to be guacamole and smoothies and salads and rich chocolate frosting atop raw chocolate brownies. They’re filled with vitamins: A, B complex, C, E, H and K. They’re high in essential amino acids and rich in minerals: folate, magnesium, copper, iron, calcium and potassium. But most importantly, avocados are fatty—not just any kind of fatty, but good fatty.

And while I know in this world of low-fat diets and counting calories that putting words like good and fatty together can seem like an oxymoron, kind of like saying gorgeous ugly or smart stupid or transparent Southerner, they’re the fatty that promotes good cholesterol (HDL) and lowers bad (LDL). The fatty that’s good for heart health. The fatty that makes it easier for your body to absorb and use the good vitamins and antioxidants in the rest of the salad you’re eating them in. The fatty proven to work against inflammation, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In other words, like I said, magic.

making avocado fries with tim

I love avocados because they taste good and because we eat them in Hawaii and because of their health benefits, and I spent a good chunk of time trying to convince my dad (and all men I know) to eat them more often because they’re also shown to reduce risk of prostate cancer, but mostly I love them because they literally amaze me—avocados are one of those rare things in life that regularly make me think, wow, now this is exactly as it should be, and we all need more of those moments.

avocado fries

Because, you know, in this life, it’s not hard to be disappointed. In a broken world of child abuse and poverty and fundamentalism and egos, it’s not hard to put your heart out there and have it crushed, not hard to be hurt, to feel the sting of someone’s words, to be forgotten or ignored or misunderstood. And there are days, I’ll just be honest, when I feel overwhelmed with all the bad things that surround us, enough that writing a little post on avocados seems pretty silly, pretty paltry, pretty small.

chopped cabbage

But here’s the thing I tell myself when those thoughts come: it’s good to see the truth of what is hard and face it, yes, but it’s better to see the whole truth, that hard things are not the only things and that there are good gifts too surrounding us—surrounding me—every day.

avocado fry with yogurt sauce

That’s why it’s blessed to look at the avocados we buy in Nashville and bring back to our gift of a home to cook in our gift of a kitchen, covering in flour and eggs and bread crumbs and sauteing into fries, so we can share them together at the table, dipped in yogurt sauce and eaten while the daylight pours in. And it’s blessed to be in Hawaii marveling at the abundance of avocados and starfruit and bananas, blessed to recognize how produce and vacation and the very marriage that they’re celebrating are gifts to make our hearts grateful and more filled with joy.

So we do, when we slather avocado on toast, when we eat guacamole late at night, when we add an avocado to our salad, when we make avocado fries. We thank God for making a food so rich and nutritious and enjoyable, even as we thank Him for everything else.

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