Story and Images, By Ryan Ireland
One evening, many years ago, I sat at a cafe table in the Piazza de Navona of Rome, Italy. Buskers trolled the walkways of the square, the sustration of the fountain backed the playing of a violinist, and everywhere I listened to the rococo-rhythms of native Italian speakers as they conversed, argued, whispered what I thought to be poems and sweet nothings to one another, and—this is important—ordered their food.
The great tragedy of my life is small in terms of tragedy, but it is a massive loss for me all the same. In my 38 years of life, I have never learned another language. Seven years of Spanish class has time and again only proven to the world my foolish arrogance, my ineptness with words outside my native tongue. For a brief time I lived in Switzerland—a nation with four official languages (English not being one of them). I spent my couple months in the mountain country greeting people with a hearty bon jour only to moments later clumsily ask these always-bilingual-and-oftimes-tri-and-quad-lingual folks if, in addition to their four national languages, they also happened to speak English. Now, as I am firmly planted in the center of America, I reflect on the richness of conversations, the many jokes, poems, and sweet nothings I have missed by never learning another language. Still, there are moments where ignorance opens a door I was too stupid to know existed. And one of those doors opened at the cafe in the Piazza de Navona. Had I known the words writ on the menu, had I been able to decipher them and parse them accurately, I would not have ordered the salad with tomato.
A salad with tomato in my crude understanding of Italian would be a bowl of leafy greens, probably some shredded carrot or cabbage, perhaps some croutons and diced bell pepper. Certainly they would offer a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese like they do at Olive Garden. On top would be a few slices of tomato. Why the menu needed to specify with tomato was beyond my understanding as an English speaker, but I figured in the most literal of senses “when in Rome…” and ordered the salad.
When it arrived, the salad consisted of tomato—only tomato and nothing but tomato. Perhaps there was a sprig of fresh basil, but nothing else. Even now I believe the sprig of basil to be more a figment of imagination, a conjuring, or confabulation than reality. Because the reality was I had ordered a bowl of tomato. Just, like, chunks of raw tomato. Not wanting to betray my ignorance, I offered the one word I knew would suffice in this situation, grazie, and I dug in.
Surely the Germans with their miles-long configurations of prefixes and suffixes have a word meaning “when you taste something familiar, yet it tastes nothing like you expected.” But, again, I do not know German. That bowl of tomato transcended all expectations. Time and again—when I order a BLT or when someone brags about the deliciousness of their heirloom tomato—I am taken back to that one salad, that one August night in Italy. The tomato—or maybe it was two tomatoes given the size of the portion–no matter–the serving of tomato like all else in that plaza was art. Each piece was cut to the perfect size, showcasing the inner beauty of the fruit. The seeds glistened in the yellow light of the square and it seemed like I could smell the garden from whence it came. Perhaps, I have thought while eating a tomato of lesser quality, I romanticized my one-ingredient Italian salad. So I go through a mental exercise where I strip the experience down to little else other than that tomato. I raze the buildings of the Piazza, shush the fountain and the violinist, silence the poetry of those who speak in the same tongue as Dante; I imagine that it is no longer night in Rome and instead I am in a blank white room–just me and that salad. I do this about once a month. The results are always the same: the salad was actually that good and the environment enhanced it. I follow the nostalgia-smashing exercise to its end and I arrive at the two things that made this simple meal so delicious: a good tomato and a good knife.
The chef’s challenge is to cut a good tomato—a juicy tomato with wet, loose seeds, red skin and flesh to match, the sort of tomato plucked at the right moment and transported no more than a few miles from its origin. Stroll the aisles of the grocery store in the hoity toity part of town and you’ll see the names appropriated from the mother tongue into the vernacular so common even I can pronounce them. Costoluto Genovese is the sort of tomato one would rather pick, cut, and eat rather than boil, process, can, or otherwise disguise. A girthy beefsteak tomato elevates the humble BLT from diner food to a perfect brunch sandwich (adding avocado to a BLT is akin to admitting defeat on the tomato front). A good sliced and lightly-peppered Campari tomato stands shoulder-to-shoulder with French cheeses and fresh-roasted nuts on a charcuterie board. And, yes, the perfect Roma, Carmello (or its cousin, the Dona) tomato makes for a delectable salad even when it is the sole ingredient. But any one of these tomatoes, if mishandled, if manhandled, could turn into a mushy mess. To cut into a tomato and do it well, one must know the fruit inside and out.
The anatomy of the tomato is a thing of beauty and comes with its own nomenclature. A clean lateral slice of the fruit reveals its architecture which looks curiously like the layout of any Roman plaza. In the center of the tomato is the columella—the firmest part of the internal structure, a pillar running from the stem to the tiny brown stigma on the bottom where it once started as a flower. Radiating from the center are the fleshy walls called the radial pericarp. The gaps between the walls housing the seeds are the vascular chambers. And this tasty package, delicately arranged and chock full of sugars and acids and nutrients, is encased by the skin, properly called the epidermis.
The epidermis is where things go wrong. You may be in possession of a tomato so perfect it would challenge the tree of knowledge for most-tempting fruit, but, as stated earlier, with the wrong knife you merely have a pulped mess. A dull knife presses the epidermis of the tomato down into the vascular bundles and radial pericarp. The seeds spill out of the locular cavities and the result is hamburger. The only thing I want to look like hamburger is hamburger. Tomato should look like tomato. And a loaf of bread looks like a VW Bus.
The beauty of the tomato is more than epidermis-deep.
The resemblance is uncanny.
Surely sharper is better. A sharp knife won’t press on the rounded slide of the tomato and slide over the skin toward your fingers. But sometimes even a razor-sharp straight-edged blade cannot pierce the skin without some damage to the flesh underneath. A serrated knife has its issues too. Steak knives are designed to tear at the fibers of meat—actual animal flesh—not the skin of a tomato which is at once incredibly durable and remarkably thin. Dragging the teeth of a serrated blade across a tomato results in a ragged cut and pulps the meat of the tomato.
The best knife to cut a tomato is New West KnifeWorks Deli Knife—a tool specifically designed to perform the most difficult of culinary tasks. Unlike the serration of a steak knife, the Deli KnifeWorks blade is made of rounded teeth that gently slice through the skin without ravaging it. Think of each tooth passing through like the natural chopping motion of a chef’s knife only on a microlevel. One pass of the knife, end-to-end means thirteen little chopping motions. In hand, the knife feels completely natural, never straining, never resisting, and smoothly, cleanly cutting. The knife is sharp and balanced, the tip perfect for winding around the stem scar and coring the fruit. I can take a tomato from my garden and hold it under my nose, smelling the earth, the greenery of its home, rinse it with spring water, and carry it gently to the kitchen. Then, using the tomato knife, remove the core and make four vertical slices, nary a drop of juice lost to undue pressure. I slice the other direction. If I spaced everything right, I’ll have eighteen thick julienned pieces. I make the lateral cuts. No seeds spill out, the edges are squared, and the aroma of the whole tomato–seeds and flesh and skin–fills the kitchen. I use my hands to scoop the pieces into a bowl. I might be in the middle of America, but I feel like I am back in Rome.
Grazie, New West KnifeWorks.