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Some Foods Don’t Go Together

Some foods naturally go together.  Peanut butter and jelly.  Dried beans and cornbread.  Bacon and eggs.  Hamburgers and French fries.  Red beans and rice.  And one of my favorite combos is baked beans and cole slaw.

            But there are some food combinations that create flavors and appearances that aren’t to my liking.  Recently, I was served salty, savory sweet potato fries with a white dipping sauce.  Assuming it was ranch dressing, I dipped a fry into the sauce.  The flavor wasn’t what I had excepted. A second bite confirmed that the sauce tasted like marshmallows.  To be sure my taste buds weren’t tricking me, I asked the waiter, and he said, “We just discovered warm marshmallow cream is the perfect dipping sauce for savory sweet potatoes.  Isn’t it great!” I tell my Grands that they should try a food they don’t like at least ten times, so maybe after nine more times I’ll agree with the waiter.

            Following a recipe for a simple warm fruit casserole, I dumped several cans of drained fruits into a dish, added a dash of cinnamon and thought it would be a delicious side dish for baked ham at a big family meal. If I’d closed my eyes while eating, the fruit might have tasted good, but the cherries colored the sauce and pears pink. The peaches and apricots took on a color that would be beautiful in a sunset, but wasn’t appealing on a plate. 

            Food shouldn’t be pink, except for strawberry fluff, a combination of strawberry gelatin and Cool Whip, and strawberry ice cream and yogurt.  Ketchup belongs on French fries – not stirred into mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs.  Even green eggs as in Dr. Seuss’s book, Green Eggs and Ham, are more appealing than pink eggs.

            Everyone ate unusual food combinations as a child.  My children dipped chips and French fries in orange ketchup, aka French dressing.  A friend said that she and her mother ate a special salad they made by layering lettuce, chopped dill pickles, sliced hot dogs, a serving of cottage cheese and then topped it with Catalina dressing.  I’ve never seen that on a menu. How about hot dog slices in potato soup?  Reddish-pink blobs in white soup doesn’t fire up my appetite.

            Do you remember the first time you were offered pineapple and ham pizza?  I thought, ‘That’s just not right.’  After watching Daughter eat it several times, I tried it and agree it’s good, but I prefer veggies and Canadian ham pizza.

            What’s better than popcorn with melted butter?  Some have tried to convince me to season popcorn with soy sauce or hot pepper sauce or chili sauce, and I expect to hear about mustard or ketchup drizzled on popcorn. 

            Husband and I both like a good peanut butter sandwich.  He makes his with sweet pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a generous slathering of Miracle Whip.  Like I said, some foods naturally go together and topping the list is peanut butter and jelly.  Make my grape jelly.

Saving Food

My freezer is full of this and that. Two small baked sweet potatoes. Half an onion – I was leaving town for ten days and didn’t want it to ruin in the refrigerator. One slice of meatloaf. A half-cup of spaghetti sauce. A plastic container labeled ‘For Soup’ stores a spoonful of corn, a few servings of green beans and lima beans, celery leaves, and who knows what else – all leftovers to go into a pot of vegetable soup.

I don’t like to throw away food. When I peel apples and pears for my Grands, I usually eat the peeling. I’ve even boiled citrus peelings with cinnamon to make good use of the peelings and make the house smell good. I dice the thick stems of broccoli for salads. I chew on the tough core of pineapples. And I know about composting, but don’t do it. I should because then I’d never waste food. Potato peelings, apple cores, pineapple leaves, eggshells – all could go into compost.

A Reader’s Digest article about fresh produce entitled “Food Parts You Should Never Throw Out” caught my eye. According to the article, most of us throw away nutrients when we dispose of what we consider waste. Pineapple cores were listed first and I patted myself on the back. But I didn’t think of adding chunks of core to a cup of hot tea or chopping it finely to add to chutneys or a stir-fry.

I was reminded of the many possibilities of citrus zest: blend in smoothies, vinaigrettes and marinades or stir into yogurt, cottage cheese, and oatmeal. Citrus peel provides fiber and three times as much vitamin C as the flesh. I’ve never tried eating kiwi skin; even thinking of its fuzzy texture makes my mouth dry. But I’ll try biting into the whole fruit because kiwi’s vitamin C level decreases when the fruit is peeled and exposed to oxygen.

Watermelon rind provides an amino acid that is good for heart health. I know about pickled rind, and this summer I’ll add chopped rind to fruit salads and slaw. Who knew watermelon seeds can be roasted? I roast pumpkin seeds, but have never roasted watermelon seeds.

I was nodding in agreement until I read the words ‘Banana Peel.’ You might remember my column about bananas. I can’t eat a banana. Its mushy, slimy texture gags me. I almost skipped this section, but I read on out of curiosity.

Banana peels provide amino acids, which boosts serotonin, known as the happiness hormone. The best peels are ripe ones because they are softer, thinner, and tastier, according the article author, Isadora Baum. To soften the peels, boil them for at least ten minutes (imagine that stench) and then add them to soups or smoothies. Or puree the peels and add to muffin or cake batter. And the kicker: for a real treat, slice and bake a banana with the skin on.

I won’t eat a banana peel in soup or a muffin or baked. Not even for its happiness hormone. Some things should be thrown out.

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Thanksgiving – Then and Now

iz347022I stood at the corner of Mom’s dining room table.  Mom and Dad, my two aunts and uncles, and my grandparents sat in ladder back chairs around that drop leaf cherry table.  We children – my brother, my two boy cousins, and I – set our plates on the table corners and as the food was passed we spooned it on our plates.  And we ate at the linen covered card table just an arm’s length from the big table.  Thanksgiving, when I was a kid.

Mother and her two sisters took turns hosting holiday meals and they did it with style.  Best china and crystal and silver.  A starched white tablecloth and matching napkins.  A fall centerpiece.  And these three ladies were good cooks.

The menu rarely changed.  Turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, green beans, creamed corn, lima beans, sweet potato casserole, jellied cranberry sauce, relish tray, rolls, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie, sweet tea.  All homemade, from scratch, except for the bake and serve dinner rolls.  Mom, as the hostess, cooked the turkey and dressing, and all three sisters stirred and tasted and seasoned the gravy to get it just right.  Aunt Doris made pies.  Aunt Nell made the relish tray and lima beans.  The vegetables – home grown beans and corn – taste the same no matter who cooked them.  Sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows.

After we ate, the women gathered in the kitchen for the clean-up ritual.  Out came plastic containers to divvy up the leftovers.  Enough for each family’s meals over the weekend.  Mom’s and my aunts’ talking and laughing and sharing secrets entertained me, and I willingly dried the dishes just to be close to them.  The clean up was finished when I crawled under the table to move its legs so that both leaves could fall, and it was moved back against the wall.

When my generation married and had homes and children, Mom and my aunts passed on the honor of hosting Thanksgiving.  We’ve sat at many different tables as my family grew.  And our menu expanded.  Cousin Carolyn’s whipped potatoes and green congeal salad.  Cousin Janie’s cherry salad.  Sister-in-law Brenda’s sweet potato casserole with a crunchy topping.   My cranberry salad.

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, Husband and I will sit at that same cherry dining room table at Brenda’s home.  Sit with her, my two cousins and their wives, and all our children and grandchildren who can be there.  We’ll sit in those same chairs where my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and my brother once sat.  In prayer, we’ll remember them—those who are no longer with us.

We’ll fill Brenda’s best china plates with the same foods that have graced that table many Thanksgivings, and we’ll probably repeat some of the same stories that have been told since I was a kid.  After we eat, we women will gather in the kitchen with take-home containers in hand.  We’ll clean up the kitchen, and then one of the children will crawl under the drop leaf table to move its legs so it can be moved against the wall.

I’m thankful that Mom and my aunts created Thanksgiving traditions.  And it makes me happy to celebrate with family around the same table where I once stood and filled my plate.  Back when I was too young to sit at the big table.

 

It’s Fall at Farmer’s Market

Picture 2     Last Saturday morning, I felt like I was visiting a friend who had changed her décor.  Where ears of corn had filled the beds of pick up trucks, now there were pumpkins.  Bushel baskets that had overflowed with green beans now offer turnip greens and sweet potatoes.  During the past few weeks, Farmer’s Market has taken on a whole new look.

“No, we don’t have fresh spinach,” a seller told another shopper.  “But we’ve got plenty of turnip greens, Swiss chard, fall lettuce, and kale.”  He waved his hand over a table.  All those greens, plus turnips, and a variety of peppers.   I walked passed tables loaded with quart jars of green beans, spices, brightly colored zinnias, apples, pears, fried pies, eggs, fresh baked breads.  “If you like peach cobbler, you’ll love this peach bread,” said a lady wearing a red baker’s apron.

I spotted a pick-up truck loaded with pumpkins and squash.  “Tell me about your squash,” I said.  Twenty minutes later the vendor, Mrs. Fielder, was my friend.  She said, “Cut this spaghetti squash (yellow and small football shape) down the middle, get the seeds out, cook it in the microwave or bake it.  Then instead of those boxed noodles, pull out the middle of your squash, kinda’ in strings or strands, and pour your red sauce over it.  It’s better than any packaged noodle.”

I thought I knew the best way to cook butternut squash, seasoned with butter and brown sugar.  “Don’t you sprinkle them with cinnamon?  Oh, it’s good,” Mrs. Fielder said. “And cut up an apple and bake it with your squash.  Or add a can of mandarin oranges.  A little fruit gives butternuts a whole different flavor.”

“Have you ever eaten a raw butternut or acorn?”  Mrs. Fielder asked.  “Try eating one like you’d eat a apple.  Or make a salad – like you’d make an apple salad.”  I’ve munched on raw yellow summer and zucchini squash, but never a butternut or acorn squash. And I thought a few slices of onion were all I needed to season an acorn. Mrs. Fielder said, “Make a little stuffing – just like for Thanksgiving – and bake a ball of it in the middle of half an acorn.  It’s really good.”  And if I want an orange fall decoration, all I have to do is lay an acorn squash in the sun for a few days.  “Use it for decoration and then eat it.  Winter squash keep a long time in a dry, cool place,” my new friend said.

Picture 1 “Is that a pumpkin or squash?”  I asked, pointing to an orange and white striped vegetable that was shaped somewhat like a drinking gourd.  “A pumpkin – a Kershaw pumpkin,” Mrs. Fielder said.  “And it tastes as good as it looks.  Like a cow pumpkin.  You know, the old timey light-colored real pumpkins?”  She and I agreed that the bright orange pumpkins are pretty, but the delicious pumpkin pies that our mothers made were from cow pumpkins.

I bought so many squash that Husband and I can eat it prepared a different way every night this week.  But we won’t.  Acorn and butternut squash and that Kershaw pumpkin and a few fall colored leaves make a perfect table decoration.  I’ve made a grocery list for my next shopping trip to Farmer’s Market:  more squash, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, turnip greens, and whatever looks good.

Grocery Shopping – It can be an Adventure

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Walking shoes, with orthotic inserts, laced and tied.  Car keys, purse, reusable shopping bags, coupons – all in hand.  Grocery list made and on my clipboard.  I was ready.  Or as ready as I’d ever be for senior citizen discount shopping day at the grocery store.

Once, years ago – long before I was eligible for a senior discount – I ran into this same grocery store to quickly pick up a few items.  I couldn’t get to the milk cooler because three grocery carts blocked them, and three gray-haired shoppers held tightly to their carts as they discussed their doctor appointments.  A conversation that convinced me to never shop this store on senior shopping day.  Until last week.

I really meant to shop on Tuesday, but somehow, Tuesday dwindled away.  And although I shop at several different grocery stores, only one carries the cottage cheese that my Grands and I like.  And I really hate to drive around town shopping here and there, especially on a rainy day.  I’m a task-oriented person when it comes to shopping.  Get it done and get out.  So I gave myself a pep talk.  ‘This is an adventure.  Something you’ve never intentionally done.  And everyone should do one new thing everyday.’

I eased my mini van into the store parking lot.  A long white sedan backed toward me.  I threw the gearshift into reverse, backed up, and avoided being hit.  A gentleman waved as he pushed a loaded grocery cart just two feet in front of my van.  The parking lot was as full as the one and only time I shopped on the day before Thanksgiving.  ‘Forget the cottage cheese!’ my brain screamed.  I inhaled.  ‘But you’re here and it’s an adventure – or maybe a risk.’  I parked, grabbed my paraphernalia, pulled my rain jacket hood over my head, and sloshed to the store’s open doors.

“Well, you look ready for the day!”  A store employee greeted me as he shuffled wet shopping carts into rows.  “The buggies are wet, but there’s plenty of paper towels to dry them.”  Oh, great.

Inside the store, I looked at the customers milling around the fresh produce.  They reminded me when my parents, both retired, decided to spend January in Florida.  After two weeks, they came home to Tennessee.  “There weren’t any kids near our apartment.  I never saw one school bus or one young family.  Just people as old as me,” Mother said.

I fit right in with the people at the grocery store.  I chatted with two friends I rarely see.  I visited with a former student, who was assisting his mother with her shopping.  When I realized my grocery cart was blocking a man’s view of birthday cards, I apologized and pulled my cart toward me.  “Oh, no.  It’s okay,” he said.  “I’m just perusing.  My wife is shopping.”  I moved at the pace of fellow shoppers.  And when I saw the 10% discount on my cash register tape, I gloated.

I like discounted prices – that’s why I bought six containers of cottage cheese.  Enough to last until the next senior shopping day.

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Eating High on the Hog (as my mother would’ve said)

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Last week I ate way above my raisin’.  Squash Blossom Salad.  Shrimp and Grits.  Pulled Bourbon Chicken with Peach BBQ Sauce.  I savored every morsel.  While visiting Charleston, South Carolina, with my college girlfriends, we chose restaurants that served some mighty good food.

Those squash blossoms could’ve grown into yellow squash and then been sliced and dredged in cornmeal and fried in a black skillet.  But the chef at Carolina’s Southern Bisto stuffed the blossom with goat cheese, dipped it in a thin sweet batter and then deep-fried it.  Melt in my mouth good.  Served over blanched green beans and garnished with chunks of yellow beets and pickled ramps.  Yellow beets?  They taste just like red beets.  I wondered if those ramps were the same variety as the wild onions that grew in my childhood family’s pig lot.  “To preserve all those flavors,” the waiter said, “the chef sprinkles a light lemon vinaigrette.”  After sopping the last crumbles of goat cheese with crusty bread, I considered cancelling my entrée and ordering another salad.  It was that scrumptious.

South Carolina Shrimp and Geechie Boy Grits, Sweet Peas, Woodfired Fennel, Ramps, Poached Celeste Egg.  The description on the menu at The Husk was too enticing to pass up.  Geechie Boy Grits taste just like the Quaker grits.  And sweet peas?  Green peas.  Ramps, again?  “Just the bulb of the onion.  Quartered and sautéed to the peak of sweetness,” the waitress said.  The same with fennel.  What’s special about the poached Celeste Egg that was served floating on top of the grits?  Celeste raises chickens on her farm, just like my friend Karen who sells me her brown country eggs.  Beautiful presentation, that matched the description, and delicious.

During a cooking demonstration, a young chef prepared Pulled Bourbon Chicken with Peach BBQ Sauce, and she proved to me that chicken thighs aren’t just for frying.  But then any meat soaked in bourbon before baking is bound to be tasty.  “And then pull it apart to look like southern barbeque,” Michelle, the chef, said.  The recipe for the sauce included ketchup, apple cider vinegar, garlic, spices, and more – all the ingredients in any good barbeque sauce – with the addition of a cup of peach nectar.  “Gives it a zing!  Your family will think you’ve created a special barbeque.”

So I came home inspired to try my hand at these dishes.  If you hear of anyone whose squash blossoms mysteriously disappear this summer, I raided the garden.  The next time I make Shrimp and Grits I plan to announce, “Tonight we’re having Shrimp and Quaker Grits, Green Peas, Sautéed Onions, Poached Karen Eggs.”  And I have all the ingredients for chicken thighs and peach sauce – I even bought a bottle of Willie’s Hog Dust that is a Charleston’s man’s own creation of BBQ spice.  But, I’d never pass off chicken and peace sauce as barbeque.

All these fancy dishes have to wait.  Right now I’m craving beans and cornbread and a bowl of turnip greens.

Sweet Strawberry

imagesOur mission is to pick strawberries.  Daughter wants two or three gallons.  A couple of gallons for me.  We have lots of help.  Her children, my Grands, are experienced berry pickers.  We travel across the county line into White County to our favorite strawberry patch, and we’ll know we’re there when we see the little red barn – actually a shed.

A big shaggy dog lies in front of the closed shed door, and a hand-written, cardboard sign announces, “CLOSED.”  White buckets are stacked on a table.  “Let me check this out.  Maybe we can pick anyway,” Daughter says as she steps out of the van.  Penciled directions on notebook paper reads ‘Help yourself to picking.  A bucket holds a gallon.  $9 a gallon.  Leave your money in the cookie jar.’

My two-year-old Grand sits, like an overseer, in her stroller amid the rows of strawberry plants while Daughter picks berries close to her.  Every plant boasts berries—a few are red.  Many more are small and green.  “Come this way, Gran,” 8 year-old David tells me.  “There’s a lot here!”  He swings a bucket, holding a few red berries, as he tromps past.  Fifteen minutes later, his bucket is almost full.

Lou, age six, frolics in the wide space between two rows of plants.  “There’s strawberries everywhere!” she says.  She checks out each of them, some she picks and puts in her bucket.  “Look at these beautiful flowers.  Are they weeds?”  She breaks a stem with miniature daisy-like blossoms.  Four-year old Ruth stays close to her mother and chooses the reddest berries to fill her bucket.  When her little sister squirms, Ruth rushes to her.  “Here, Elaine, do you want a strawberry?”  Ruth blows on the berry before giving it to her sister.  Elaine’s first bite sends red juice down both her arms.  Using a stick, Ruth draws lines and circles in the damp dirt beside her little sister’s stroller.

With one bucket full of berries and another half full, I call for David, who’s starring at a large strawberry he’s clutching, to help me.  “Not right now.  I’m waiting for him to take a bite,” he says.  A bite?  Who?  “There’s a tiny little ant on this berry.  Do ants eat strawberries?”  Ruth left her post beside her little sister.  “Look, Gran,” she calls to me.  “I found three.”  Assuming that she’s holding three strawberries, I hold my bucket toward her.  “Three ladybugs!” she announces and cradles them in her cupped hands.  A bucket of berries is spilled and picked up.  A few soft, mushy ones are thrown.  Shoes stick in the mud.

Daughter gathers all the troops and suggests if everyone finds just ten more bright red berries, we’ll be finished.  So in less than an hour, after putting money in the cookie jar, we leave the strawberry patch with five gallons of berries.

Mission accomplished.  And so much more.  Experiences and lessons.  About trust and honesty and sharing and working together.  Some weeds have pretty flowers.  Ants eat almost everything.  Ladybugs hide under leaves.  All that makes the strawberries on my Cheerios taste even sweeter.

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First Time Hostess

I lay in bed mentally checking my to-do lists.  Tables set.  Were the card table legs fastened?  Cut a lemon for tea.  Put the turkey in the oven at 5:00 a.m.  – just five hours from now.  Bake two pecan pies.  Wipe the bathroom sink.  Would the kids (ages 3 and 5) agree to wear the cute new outfits that my mother had made?

I’d written, checked, and rechecked lists for three days.  It was Husband’s and my firsttime to host a holiday dinner for my family.  And it wasn’t my idea.  Mother and her two sisters had rotated Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in their homes for 35 years, and they’d decided it was time for the younger generation to take over.

“We’ll help,” Mother had said.  “I’ll make the cornbread dressing and you know your Aunt Nell and Aunt Doris and I always make the gravy together.  Save the turkey drippings.  And everybody brings food.  You just put a turkey in the oven and make tea and coffee and maybe a dessert.  It’ll be fine.”  I told myself that these were the people – all 22 of them – who loved me best.  Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brother, cousins.  If things weren’t perfect, they’d understand.

But I was determined that Husband and I could host the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.  I’d take pecan pies out of the oven just after everyone arrived.  Wouldn’t that make the house smell good?  By tradition, I had covered the tables with white tablecloths, and set them with my best china, crystal goblets, silver, and floral centerpieces.

Thanksgiving morning, 5:00 a.m., I shoved an 18-pound turkey into a 325* oven and climbed back into bed until daylight.  I rolled and turned, but didn’t sleep.  I got up.  The morning passed quickly.  How many times can one adjust plates and forks and napkins?  Our children were cuter than cute in their new clothes.  Bathroom sinks sparkled.  Husband promised that the card tables wouldn’t fall.  I rolled out piecrusts – no store bought crusts for this feast – and used the family recipe for pecan filling.  Turkey out of the oven and pie in, right on schedule.

Our guests arrived carrying sweet potato pudding, corn, asparagus casserole, green beans, pumpkin pies, and more.  Mother and my aunts filled my small kitchen as they stirred and tasted the giblet gravy.  Husband sliced the turkey.  We could’ve been models for Norman Rockwell’s November magazine cover.  The oven buzzer sounded.  “That’s the pecan pies,” I announced.

“You even made pies this morning?”  my cousin asked.  I opened the oven door, grabbed two potholders and carefully set the first pie on a cooling rack.  When I lifted the second one out of the oven, it was a slippery sliding disk.  The hot pie flipped out of hands and landed upside down on the floor and splattered onto my shoes.  Tears ran down my face, and everyone assumed that the hot pie filling had burned my feet.  Not so.  The pecan pie oozing under the refrigerator erased all pretense of a picture-perfect Thanksgiving.

Now, some thirty years later, I make short lists, check them once, and don’t bake pies.  And it’s just fine.  And I’m thinking maybe it’s time for the younger generation to take over.

Fall’s Biggest Social Events

How about the tailgating at TTU?  Lots of food and fun.  A bounce zone for the young and young at heart.  Fathers and sons playing football.  Corn hole games.  Frisbies.  Some folk bring their own food.  Some dine on the free food and beverages that are provided by local churches and businesses.  Tech cheerleaders pump us up for the game, and my favorite, the TTU Marching Band performs.

When did tailgating begin?  The American Tailgater Association, on its website, details the history of sharing food and drink before events and says the first documented tailgate probably took place in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run.  It states, “At the battle’s start, civilians from the Union side arrived with baskets of food and shouting, ‘Go Big Blue!’  Their efforts were a form of support and were to help encourage their side to win the commencing battle.”  The Romans ate and drank outside the Coliseum before gladiator games.  Doesn’t that fall into the broad definition of tailgating?  Surely, they shared food and spirits and talked about the upcoming sports events.

In 1869, a group of Rutgers fans and players, wearing scarlet-colored scarves as turbans, paraded before the football game between Princeton and Rutgers.  This was one of the earliest recorded celebrations before a sporting event.

There are all styles and levels of tailgating.  Tailgating was simple when we drove a big wood panel station wagon.  We lowered the tailgate, spread out a plastic tablecloth and food.  Pimento cheese sandwiches, chips, and store bought cookies.  Then came vans.  We packed chairs, coolers with drinks, upscaled to ham rolls, fancy dips for chips, and cupcakes decorated with our team’s mascot.  Or we picked up a family-pack barbeque dinner on the way to the game.

For some folks, RV tailgating is the ultimate.  As good as life gets, I’ve been told, and an event that can go on for several days.  No need to go to the game.  RVers park close to the stadium and watch the game on big screen televisions.  They relax in their comfortable chairs, eat and drink all through the game, know there’s been a big play when they hear the roar of the crowd, and maybe even the game announcer, and celebrate when their team scores on the big screen.

Football fans on the Ole Miss campus take tailgating to the extreme.  And when I tailgated in The Grove, I made a check mark on my bucket list.  Ten acres in the center of a campus shaded by oak, elm, and magnolia trees.  Thousands of fans under a sea of red, white, and blue tents.  And the table settings and fare were fit for a southern girl’s wedding reception.  Elaborate centerpieces, silver candlesticks, tablecloths, fancy hor d’oeuvres, barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, and all the fixings.

Tailgating isn’t just about the food.  It’s getting ready for the big game.  Food, friends, and fun —what’s not to like about one of fall’s biggest social events?

Who’s the Tomato Queen?

June declared that her mother is the Queen of Tomatoes. I really don’t like to argue with friends, but June didn’t know my mother when she and Dad grew a huge vegetable garden.
Mom served tomatoes every meal. Sliced, with eggs and bacon for breakfast, on a BLT sandwich for lunch, and chopped in coleslaw or quartered for supper.
Mom canned tomato juice, whole tomatoes, and tomato soup with vegetables. No tomato – not even a green one – went to waste. At the end of the growing season, green tomatoes were sliced, coated with cornmeal and fried. Fried green tomatoes. Delicious. And if there were too many green tomatoes to fry before the first killing frost in the fall, Mom picked them from the vines. Then she wrapped them, individually, in a torn piece of old newspaper and laid them in a single layer on a cardboard tray. The green tomatoes were stored, with hopes that they would ripen, in the darkest corner of the basement. The unused coal bin. And when those tomatoes turned light pink or red, she cooked them in spaghetti sauce or with Salisbury steak.
June said that her mother, Nell, buys home grown tomatoes from neighbors. “Searching for, talking about, and preserving tomatoes all loom large in my mom’s life each summer. She would never consider serving a meal of fresh summer vegetables and hot cornbread without luscious, fresh tomatoes.” Nell handles each tomato with special care. Wrapped in tissue paper. “Each Christmas she collects used tissue paper –all colors – and cuts perfect squares. She gently wraps all tomatoes, one by one, and places them on small trays and stores them on the floor under her bed.” There an air vent provides the perfect storage temperature. Nell’s tomatoes go straight from under her bed to the dinner table. (And all these years I thought my kitchen counter was the perfect storage place for ripe tomatoes.)
At the end of the season, Nell buys whatever tomatoes she can find. Red and green and all shades in between. She even travels fifty miles from her home in South Pittsburg to Pikeville to buy the best green tomatoes around. She wants to serve homegrown tomatoes as long as possible. It’s a sad moment when she announces, “These are the last of the home grown tomatoes.”
Nell’s goal is to serve tomatoes for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. If she can keep them until November, that accomplishment comes with bragging rights. June said, “Although we are thankful for the turkey and fixings, we always talk about and wonder how long those tomatoes stayed under Mom’s bed. My mom truly is the Queen of Tomatoes.”
Does Nell’s wrapping each homegrown tomato in squares of Christmas tissue paper and sleeping with tomatoes under her bed trump my mother’s growing and canning and storing tomatoes? Maybe. How about this? June’s mother is the reigning Tomato Queen and my mother was the former queen.