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Ode to Tomatoes and Bread
Discover my comfort food, which goes back to my family's peasant origins in Italy
My father is a character. I never really knew this until I met my husband, and he pointed it out. As a landscaper, he works 48 hours per day (you read that correctly), and then comes home to tend his own garden, which is full of tomatoes, as a hobby. His church is the casino and his altar the slot machines, but he won't play anymore after he loses $50. Never ever suggest taking away his glass of wine with dinner. On that note, while you are at the table, he will regale you with stories about camping in Buceto, the mountains of Ischia, his home island in Italy, and cutting class to play soccer. He doesn't remember names, so he'll give you a new one. My cousin Fausto became Massimo and a friend of ours named Ji Young became Gignac, which is actually the name of a town in France.
During the summer, while you're listening to his stories and getting your new name, he will be sure to serve you tomatoes and bread with whatever else you're eating. It is that simplest of dishes that will have you coming back for more of my papa'.
All you need is a chunk of crusty Italian bread, tomatoes, olive oil (extra virgin is best but any will do), salt, garlic, and either basil, oregano, or both, depending on your preferences. You open the bread up like you're making a sandwich, then you spread some olive oil on it. Next you mix up the tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic (chopped or minced), and then pour it over the bread. You can push the tomatoes into the bread and let the juice flow from them and eat it like a sandwich. Or you can do what I do; press the tomatoes into the bread, eat the tomatoes and let some of them fall onto the plate and then scoop whatever didn't make it to your mouth already with the bread, making sure to wipe your plate clean.
The most important ingredient in all this is the tomato. My father's a gardening genius when it comes to his tomatoes. They are ripe, red, and juicy, sweet as can be, especially in July and August. When I lived with him, he would put tomatoes and bread in my dish with whatever else we were eating throughout the summer. He almost always is able to share at least one of his tomatoes with my husband, who returns to the United States from Italy every November. In the winter, he buys tomatoes from other parts of the country and world to give me tomatoes and bread on Sundays.
Before carbohydrates were a bad word, my father and his sisters would buy small loaves of round Italian bread, and they would cut off the top and take out some of its center, and then they would stuff it with tomato salad – and eat it all. Americans have macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets as their comfort food. We Italians have tomatoes and bread.
Tomatoes and bread became popular with our people in Ischia because everyone could grow their own tomatoes, and they are especially delicious when grown in the island's thermal soil. Everyone also made their own bread and grew their own herbs. All you had to buy was olive oil and salt, which were staples of the Italian kitchen anyway. If the bread was stale, your parents would just add a little water to the salad to soften up the bread. My American cousins would actually bring this to school for lunch often. At the time – the late 1970s and early 1980s – the other kids were unaware of what a specialty my cousins were toting. By the time I started bringing the goods to the cafeteria, my friends knew the goodness of tomatoes and bread. They wanted to trade me for sushi (I went to school with many Japanese kids) or peanut butter and jelly. If I had lasagna, I would sometimes make a deal, but I never gave up the tomatoes and bread.
Nowadays, I often find tomatoes and bread on sale in Italian specialty shops – sometimes with slight variations, such as the addition of fresh mozzarella chunks, or toasted or grilled bread, which is known as bruschetta. I can never believe my eyes when I see the price. Some of these folks are charging up to $10 for a foot of tomatoes and bread, a peasant food that was made simply because it was cheap, tasty, and filling. Anyone can make it at home in no time at all for less than half that price. Real Italians – at least the ones from the South who I know – would laugh at Americans paying for tomatoes and bread. The same thing happened to another peasant staple, pasta e fagioli, also known as pasta e fasoohl or pasta and beans, a while back. I guess tomatoes and bread are having their moment in the sun. For me, they have their moment every summer when papa's tomatoes grow.
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