There’s nothing better than a real summer tomato, raised outside your doorstep or on a local farm. When you see those round red globes on tables at the farmers’ market, you know summer is really here. But every time I slice one up for dinner, I get homesick for my mom’s kitchen. It wasn’t so much what she did with the tomatoes she grew – we mainly had them sliced, then sprinkled with salt and pepper, or, when that got boring, with sugar. It was the fact that she served them peeled that made them utter perfection.
I know a lot of nutrition-mad foodies say you have to eat the skin of any fruit or vegetable to get all the vitamins and enzymes and Super Magic Crystals inside the produce in question. It makes me feel like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” any time I point out, to a dining companion, that the skin of the most glorious tomatoes is tough. I find myself cutting the slices into bite-size pieces to avoid having to grind away at the skin with what’s left of the sharp edges of my teeth. This is especially problematic when serving a BLT. Excuse me, please, while I attempt to bite into this slice of tomato, leaving only a BL behind.
The easy way to skin a tomato is by scoring an X into the bottom and then immersing it briefly into boiling water. Once retrieved and cooled under cold water, the skin slips right off. Easy, but who wants to boil water when it’s 85 degrees in the kitchen even with the AC blasting?
We didn’t have air conditioning when I was growing up, and even if Mom knew about this cheater-peeling tip, she would have scorned it. All she needed was her paring knife. Some people in my family may be tired of hearing this, but my mom was a genius with a knife. With that little straightedge, she could take the skin off anything in a trice – tomato, potato, turnip, tangerine. Well, no, not a tangerine; those are self-peeling fruits, bless their little hearts. Everything else, though, she could strip down just like that.
Me, I have to resort to one of those apple corer-peelers if I want an apple pie. It’s a great little device, and I find it hard to stop peeling once I’ve got it set up, but if Mom were here, she’d laugh. Then, I suppose, she would sigh to see her daughter, all thumbs in the kitchen, using peelers and mandolines or, God forbid, an electric food processor just to skin a carrot. Sorry, Mom. I guess it wasn’t in the genes.
I think, sometimes, it was just as much in the knife as in her genome. Mom had a giant butcher knife she used for other tasks, like cutting up a whole chicken in about the time it takes me to eat a drumstick. That knife was so cool, it had its own little bed to rest in, crafted out of wood by my dad. Any time it became dull, she would holler, “Harold! The knife needs sharpening!” and he would run it down to his basement workshop, where he honed it with some kind of power tool until it could slice a nickel in half. I never tested this; I just knew it must be true.
Julia Child knew the value of a good knife. Not only did it make her a great chef and the author of an amazing cookbook which even I can cook from (just try my cherry clafouti sometime), it was the basis for one of her deepest friendships. The whole saga is laid out in the 2010 book “As Always, Julia,” a delicious collection of letters between Child and Avis DeVoto, whose husband, Bernard, wrote books and, most importantly, columns for newspapers and magazines that Julia read when her own husband’s career landed them in Paris. Upon reading Mr. DeVoto’s diatribe in Harper’s about the infuriating American knife – beautiful, rust-proof, and also edge-proof (that is, unsharpenable) – she took pity upon the man and sent him not only an admiring and sympathetic letter, but also a small French knife. Avis was her husband’s letter handler, and thus began a world-class friendship, and a flurry of entertaining correspondence.
Julia, too, had been unable to sharpen her American knives, telling DeVoto, “I am therefore wondering if the average American housewife really wants a sharp knife in the kitchen, as many of my compatriots accuse me resentfully: ‘But your knives are so sharp! They’re dangerous!’”
Au contraire. Any chef knows it’s a dull knife that’s apt to debone the cook’s finger, as she saws away ineffectually. A dull knife won’t even cut into a tomato, let alone remove its skin. My mom did not consider herself much of a cook (although she was), but even she knew the importance of a honed edge.
Last weekend we made a trip to Madison, stopping at my favorite fruit/wine/cheese/what-have-you store for a first bag of what the store likes to call “chin-drippin’ peaches.” I sliced one up for lunch today, and while the flesh within was superlative in both flavor and texture, I wished my mom were around to cut off the unyielding skin.
She used to do that for us, before dropping slices onto vanilla ice cream for dessert. If we missed a bit of fiber, so what? There is something to be said for food that can be savored, not fought with. All it takes is a good knife, and a certain kind of skill. My mom an ordinary cook? Hardly. I wish you could have seen her peel a peach.