In a huge, sterile kitchen at a cooking school in downtown Tokyo…
It is no mystery that the best tomatoes in the world are found on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, south of Naples, Italy. But I neither discovered the value of the tomato nor my love of food in Italy, but in Tokyo, where I spent most of my childhood.
I was nine years old at the time. I found myself tagging along with my mother to a cooking class, where she was to demonstrate how to make an easy Western meal to young Japanese ladies. It was odd that my mother was selected because she is not from the West; she is from Sierra Leone with post-secondary education in Nutrition and Dietetics from the United Kingdom and the States. She is a phenomenal cook and must have been recommended by one of the guests of the many diplomatic dinners she and my father hosted.
Meal to demonstrate: a good ol’ American grilled cheese sandwich…
In a huge, sterile kitchen at a cooking school in downtown Tokyo, two young Japanese ladies stood by the counter waiting for my mother. On entering, my mother greeted them with a huge smile that did not leave her face for the entire cooking session. I noticed she smiled the most while doing what she loved: cooking. It was infectious and throughout the course, the two ladies could not help smiling back.
“This is my daughter and she will be my little helper.” I nodded, acknowledging my older pupils who towered over me.
My mother briskly turned to the stove and put the grill pan on it to pre-heat. She handed me the sliced cheddar cheese packet and asked me to unwrap them and lay them separately out on a plate. She grabbed several slices of bread, spread them on the pan and placed the cheese I had just separated on the bread, then left it there to melt. Great, I thought, my one moment to play teacher was over in less than a minute, but wait…
Mommy grabbed a tomato.
We wondered what she’d do with it.
At the time, I was not crazy about tomatoes and often refused to eat them. My father enticed me by saying they would make me more beautiful like my mother. After one bite, I would tell him, “I’d rather stay ugly.”
Slicing the tomato, my mother placed it on top of the melted, gooey cheese in the grill pan then closed the sandwiched with another slice of bread. She took a spatula, lifted the entire sandwich and flipped it on the other side. You could see the dark wedges of the grill pan etched in the dark brown toast with cheese slightly oozing out on the crust.
“There!” she exclaimed. “That’s how you make a grilled cheese sandwich; now you try it.”
The ladies proceeded to mimic my mother’s moves. When they were done, we had to sample their sandwiches. I was not enthused; the intruder tomato, as crimson as the rising sun on the Japanese flag, ruined my appetite.
Afraid I was insulting the young ladies, my mother nudged me, prompting me to try it. I took a bite; my teeth grit through the hot toast, the warm, gooey cheddar cheese and then, finally, the tomato. I let the drops of tomato juice, which oddly had maintained its cool and refreshing effect, trickle down the contours of my tongue. Ripping out a big piece, I noticed how the acidic tomato changed a dull grilled cheese sandwich into a fresh, juicy one.
In adulthood, I was fortunate to meet a southern Italian, marry him and spend my summers at his home, half an hour away from Mt. Vesuvius. Not a day goes by without me eating a tomato. Like my mother, I’m not only into food but I’m also quite a pretty lady!