Tomatoes, Dust, and a Tasty Soupçon of Africa, Too

Tomatoes on the Vine (Photo courtesy of L. Wilcoxen)

Tomatoes on the Vine (Photo courtesy of L. Wilcoxen)

My nose burned a little, a sign that more freckles soon would pop out, but I didn’t care. My haunches rested right where I wanted them to be on that late August day, right smack in the dusty dirt between two rows of leafy tomato plants. Red globes of all sizes hung like Chinese lanterns from the vines, their weight causing some to trail along in the dust.

Rubbing my nose with back of my sleeve, I examined the tomatoes like a farmer looking for a fine plow horse. Which one would I choose? I had all the time in the world and no one would bother me. My parents and brothers scattered earlier in the day to their various activities. At age 14, the family cook, I was home alone.

To prolong the anticipation of biting into one of those huge ruddy fruits, I brushed against the leaves of the tomato plant nearest to me. Waves of peppery fragrance floated toward me. I inhaled deeply. No words in the English language quite capture the smell of fresh, in-the-ground tomato plants. Today, the closest I come to that indescribable odor comes from the stems left on the outrageously priced hydroponic tomatoes for sale in upscale grocery stores. I often pick up those tomatoes and stealthily sniff, just to relive that moment in the dust of August, feeling like a sexual deviant standing there in the produce department.

Carefully, I separated the leaves of the plant closest to me. There hung The One, the first tomato of the day. I guessed it measured about four inches across and its tight scarlet jacket covered what I dreamed would be a juicy and meaty feast. I reached toward my prize, grasping it by the stem, and pulled hard. Off it snapped, sinking into my palm like a baseball. My fingerprints clearly visible in the fine film of dust coating its tissue-paper-thin skin, that tomato radiated magnificence. Gently, I rubbed it against my chest, a powdery track marring my white T-shirt, but so what?

Holding the tomato up to my nose, I again breathed in the aphrodisiacal aroma. I stroked the smooth tomato skin, almost as if I were practicing for pleasuring my future lover. And then I opened my mouth and brought the tomato up to my teeth and bit in. Juice squirted in all directions, even up my nose, and I closed my eyes more in ecstasy than to avoid the juice shower. The sweet tartness of the still-sweltering tomato flesh filled my mouth and the juice trickled down my chin onto my now not-so-white shirt. And at that peak moment, I no longer sensed any difference between the tomato and me. Connected to the earth, a mysterious and wordless concept in my undeveloped sensibility, for a second I disappeared into another place. If I understood then what communion meant, or even sexual union, no doubt the sensation would have been more familiar. I only comprehended that something very profound happened, because that moment never left me. In a life filled with many moments and memories, that cosmic flash remains unforgettable.

Shaken, I searched for another tomato and another, their sun-hot flesh warming my quivering hands, and then I pulled myself away from the dust and trudged into the house. Epiphany or not, it was time to start dinner and I knew one thing: that night we would eat sliced tomatoes slathered with mayonnaise and coarsely ground black pepper. And I could hardly wait …

Fast-forward 30 years. That phantasmagoria on a hot August day seemed far away as I squatted in the dust under a dry-season white-hot sky in West Africa. Staring at five scrawny plum tomatoes, arranged pyramidally on the ground in front of an African market lady, I sensed the bad news immediately. But I asked anyway, my fingers crossed behind my back like a 14-year-old kid. “Madame, vous n’avez plus de tomates?” “No, Madame, no more tomatoes,” she answered. Standing up, I counted out the colorful paper money, torn in so many places, covered with the ubiquitous red dust of the southern Sahara. I handed the marchande her money. Placing the tomatoes gently into my straw market basket, the market lady smiled, her beautiful white teeth a testimony to the wholesome diet she ate. When she could.

In heat hovering at 120 F in the shade, I trudged from one market lady to another, buying as many tomatoes as I could find. Five runty tomatoes just wouldn’t cut it for a feast for twenty-five people. As a Westerner newly arrived in the country, I was learning firsthand the near impossibility of feasting during the dry season, another epiphany of a sorts. Food simply does not exist in large enough quantities, no matter how much one might wish it were so. But miracles happen. Money helps, and so that day I brought home enough tomatoes for a feast fit for a king. Or at least for the village chief coming to our house.

That night we would eat Fiery West African Tomato Condiment and Chicken in Peanut Sauce with Spinach after all. And I could hardly wait …

Fiery West African Tomato Condiment
Makes 2 ½-3 cups

3 T. peanut oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)
8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer uncovered until oil separates from the tomatoes. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any African main dish.

Chicken in Peanut Sauce with Spinach
Serves 4-6

3 T. peanut oil
6 chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed and patted dry
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced, and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of a quarter, peeled and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 small hot green pepper, seeded, and minced
6 large plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 t. salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
¼ t. cayenne pepper
½ t. paprika
½ t. curry powder
½ t. dried thyme leaves
1 cup natural peanut butter (unsweetened)
8 oz. fresh spinach leaves
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish

Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Place chicken pieces skin side down and cook until golden; flip pieces over and brown the other side. Remove chicken from pan and set aside on a large plate. Add onions to the pan and fry until slightly translucent and golden in color; toss in the garlic, ginger, and hot green pepper. Cook for another minute or so, until garlic turns slightly golden. Stir in tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Mash tomatoes with a potato masher or other implement. Mix in the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, curry powder, and thyme leaves. Stir well. Pour in 2 cups of water. Add the chicken, making sure to cover pieces with the broth. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes.

Using a bit of the broth from the pot, thin the peanut butter and stir well. Add ½ of the peanut butter mixture to the stew. (Reserve the other half of the mixture for the spinach.) Cook, covered, until chicken is tender, about 40 minutes or so.

While the chicken cooks, rinse the spinach, and immediately add it to a large skillet over high heat. Stirring constantly, cook the spinach until all the leaves wilt. Remove from heat instantly and dump the spinach into a colander. Run cold water over the spinach and let drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water from the spinach and set aside. Just before the chicken is done, place the spinach in a heavy-bottomed pot, gently stir in the reserved peanut sauce, and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, uncovered, making sure that the mixture stays moist. Add a few tablespoons of water if mixture gets too dry.

Ladle sauce over white rice, placing a piece of chicken on the side. Garnish the chicken and the rice with chopped cilantro leaves. Spoon the spinach near the chicken. Pass Fiery West African Tomato Condiment around the table and dribble some on the chicken if desired. [Note: This dish freezes and reheats well.]

For more about tomatoes, see:

Bibliography: The Tomato in America prior to the Civil War : Annotated and Indexed, by Andrew F Smith (1993)

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer, by Tim Stark (2008)

The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit, by Amy Goldman (2008)

“The History of the Use of the Tomato: An Annotated Bibliography,” by George Allen McCue. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 39 (4): 289-348, November 1952.

Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History), by David Gentilcore (2010)

The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery, by Andrew F. Smith (2001)

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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3 comments

  1. hmm, the description of your childhood tomato extasy reminded me of spending whole week in the south of france some time ago, helping to grow – but mainly eat – these amazing red creatures. I remember one hot afternoon, sitting in my room, all on my own, gorging on warm tomatoes, with just a bit of soughdough to help them along…nearly orgasmic

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