August 10, 2012

Blog the Nineteenth: A Musing on the Simplest Things

Tomato Salad

Simplicity is hard to understand.  Its being hard to understand is also hard to understand.  The usual way to understand something is to understand the relations among its parts.  But where there are no parts and relations, but simply unity, the seeing must be immediate:  you either see the simplest things, or you don’t.

If your way of eating is a way of life—not your own merely, but a people’s way of life—then it comes not through education, but through assimilation.  I have a colleague from South Carolina who told me that he learned to open a car door for a lady when his father once upbraided him, “What’s wrong with you, boy?  Don’t you know to get that door for your aunt?”  It’s obvious.  It’s a way of being in the world your people take for granted.  Like breathing, if you think too hard about it, you’ll liable to lose your rhythm and your breath.

That’s no doubt why it sometimes seems to me that Gentiles don’t know the simplest things, like how to make a tomato salad.  What’s more, they don’t seem to know that they don’t know.  You really can’t explain it to them:  either they taste the difference between ours and theirs, and what’s just right about ours, or they don’t.  If they don’t, it’s a waste of breath talking about it.

Of course, my reasonable self grasps the proposition that such cultural differences are relative, and that in matters of taste there must not be dispute.  It would make no sense to eat according to other people’s tastes, would it?  And even if one entertain the proposition that some cooking may be judged better than other cooking, or even that our own cooking may be judged better than every other people’s cooking, would not the liberal‑minded interpretation of this fact be that our own had attained to extraordinary heights of superiority, rather than that the others were defective?

But it just doesn’t seem that way to me.  It seems like the right way to dress a tomato should be obvious to a human being, upon a bit of reflection and experimentation, or, failing that, upon their first taste of our tomato salad.  It’s obvious because it’s simple:  taste for yourself.  And if you don’t taste the difference, I can’t explain it to you.

Of course, in America we lie, for civility’s sake.  We say that we find the way other people cook interesting, and we give the impression we’d like to try it some time to experience the difference, and even apologize for our own attachment to our own way as a kind of cultural bias—my mother is very good at this, much more convincing than I am—but all this courteous relativism dissembles a secret belief that our way of eating is the best way, not only for us, but according to nature, and we’ll sooner take seriously another’s claim to the same for their way, than the claim that there is no best way.  For the rest, we’re humoring you.  “Our way is the best,” my mother will let out to me, over a cup of coffee, discussing other people’s food, when there’s no one else around to hear.  She’d probably laugh and deny it if you asked whether she really says this, but she’d be lying to you.  I’m outing my mother.

Making a tomato salad is one of the simplest things my people do with tomatoes in season.  But if simplicity is a virtue, and if Aristotle is right that virtue is a mark that has an infinity of excess and defect to hit when we miss our mark, then I need to explain what I mean by simplicity, and also what I don’t mean by simplicity.

“I just kept it simple,” says the Gentile, by which is meant, “I didn’t do anything with it.”  That’s not what I mean by simplicity.  The Gentile I have in mind, mind you, is not the clueless one who will buy tomatoes out of season, without taste, without sense.  No, the Gentile I have in mind does not lack their own tomato culture, their own claim to a best way:  they search out the best tomatoes at the best farmer’s markets; to be eaten within hours of purchase; to be cut with a special tomato knife; to be seasoned only with pinches of gourmet salt and a fresh grinding of pepper (and just maybe, scant drizzles of the finest olive oils from the smallest bottles); in sum, to be savored at its seasonal peak unadulterated.  “It’s so delicious on its own, you don’t want to do anything else to a good tomato.”

This takes simplicity too far.  It is, so to speak, an excess of simplicity.  Simplicity is not not doing something.  Not doing something is not the same as doing something simply.  Granted that simplicity means not overdoing it, and that not doing anything will never overdo it, not doing anything is still not doing something, simple or not.  Do you see what I mean about simplicity’s not being simple to explain?

Where, then, does simplicity in cooking lie, if not in inaction?  Like all other human arts, culinary art is at Nature’s mercy for its provisions.  Once Nature vouchsafes her wares, my people’s cooking aims to educe and magnify native aromas, textures, tastes, and colors, and array them for display and delight.  This is the first sense of simplicity we aim at: to draw out natural forms, as stewards of Nature, rather than to invent novel forms as masters of art.  We are arraying our queen, not costuming a player.

That tomatoes are good can only be obvious.  Our aim is to render that good beautiful to behold and delightful to savor.  Salt, as ever, draws the flavor out.  The floral scent of basil, the herbaceous pungency of raw garlic, the bite of oregano, set it off.  Olive oil is the medium which joins all these into one—not the oneness of  an amalgamation, but of a harmony emergent upon multiple notes ringing in unison.   

To start with, the tomatoes must be delicious, and in my opinion, not only firm and shapely, but also ripe.  I like Heritage tomatoes, but I won’t pay five dollars a pound for them—that’s white collar crime.  Of course, there’s nothing like a tomato fresh from your own garden.  Some Modern Italians insist that less ripe, green-shouldered tomatoes are best for raw salads, and one vendor in Rome’s Campo dei fiori once compelled me over my repeated objections to pick me out green ones from his special stash instead of the red ones I kept pointing to.   I was as disappointed at table as at market. 

My mother cuts tomatoes for salad into big wedges, vertically, as you would section an apple.  I cut a big tomato in half horizontally, halve the half, and then slice it crosswise to get triangular wedges.  Either way, we both cut wedges big, two or three times as big as bite-sized.  My people have an aversion to bit-sized food, let alone dicing or mincing, which we leave to baby food manufacturers and haute cuisine chefs, who have their own reasons for sacrificing the integrity of their ingredients—the former to the inability of their clients to take nature’s gifts as they come, and the latter to the concoctions of their culinary fancies. 

My people want you to recognize your food.  To that end, we preserve its natural form—its form in the sense of its kind, not its shape.   The sectioned tomato has obviously lost the shape of a whole tomato, but if the pieces remain large enough, you see immediately for yourself that it’s a tomato you’re about to eat.  The pieces still have the look of tomato, and when you have to cut and chew the piece, you also get the feel of tomato.  The Latin word for a thing’s look is species, which gives us the scientific term “species,” meaning a classification of a natural kind.

Every thing is a kind of thing, and every kind of thing has a multitude of parts and characteristics, but its being the kind of thing it is is irreducible to this multiplicity of its parts and characteristics.  The simple unity of a kind is not like the simplicity of a smallest homogenous part, like a point or an atom. It is rather the simplicity of a unitary and unifying form:  a tomato is a distinct form of fruit:  it has seeds, pulp, and skin, and a look, smell, feel, and taste all its own, all of which let you recognize immediately, “That’s a tomato.”  It’s obvious.  The simplicity my people strive for in cutting up a tomato is that it remain obvious to you that it is tomato you are about to eat.

And that it’s delicious.  To make that obvious, we adorn it.  Rendering what’s good beautiful means rendering its goodness perceptible to a perceiver.   Beauty is in the eye of the beholder because the good becomes the beautiful when it is beheld.  Granted that the good need not be beheld to be good, it must be beheld to be held good:  to be desired, sought, and then enjoyed all the more for having first been desired.  Though it is better to be good than to be beautiful, and that to be beautiful and not good is bad, it is best for the good to be beautiful.

In short, you want your tomatoes to look and smell good.  Nature teaches you to marry tomatoes and basil by providing both in abundance in due season.  The colors and aromas are an obvious match.  We might tear the basil leaves in two or three pieces to release yet more of the aroma, but in such a way that you recognize them immediately as basil leaves.  We want them only for their floral aroma and green color, not to eat them, so chopping them fine or tearing them into bite-sized pieces overshoots the mark.  Simplicity here means restraint.  The leading part is to be played by the tomato, and the basil is in service of magnifying its aroma and color, like the soprano or tenor singing flourishes above the main melody

Where the basil enhances tomato by way of counterpoint, the garlic sets it off by way of contrast. The herbaceous pungency of raw garlic accentuates the fresh sweetness of the tomato, the way an ugly but manly husband sets off the feminine beauty of his beautiful wife.  Such contrasts are delicate matters, however.  Too much garlic will not merely compete with the tomato, it will domineer over it (I won’t continue my analogy with the ugly husband.)  My mother will lightly crack or score a few garlic cloves and throw them into the bowl whole, to be tossed with the tomatoes, for effluences of garlic aroma.  I crush a garlic clove on the bottom of the bowl, peel away its skin, and lightly rub the bowl with its halves for slightly stronger garlic flavor, leaving the halves in the bowl for tossing with the tomatoes. 

Adding the tomato wedges and torn basil leaves into the garlic‑anointed bowl, I salt the tomatoes evenly all over, so that each wedge gets its share.  Enough salt is all important for bringing out the tomato’s flavor, but it’s important not to salt too long before serving, because the salt will draw out watery juice from the tomato pulp, and too much of this juice will make for a soupy dressing that dilutes tomato flavor.   Sometimes I even squeeze out a bit of this excess juice during the slicing up of the tomato, by grabbing the halves with my whole hand and very gently squeezing out some watery pulp—but very gently, so as not to compromise the shape and firmness of the tomato flesh.

The final and contrasting note is a light sprinkling of dried oregano.  The best oregano comes from Greece dried on the plant stem, from which you shake it loose.  Fresh oregano is no substitute for dried, not having the requisite spiciness.  While garlic gives pungency for the nose, dried oregano gives sharpness for the tongue.  Like a sharp wit, it mitigates against banality.  Tomatoes and basil are sweet, and the sweet, on its on, risks being bland.  Shadows help you see what’s in the light; oregano’s bite accentuates the way in which tomatoes are sweet.  (I figure Gentiles use black pepper for the same reason, but I will never publicly own up to sometimes adding some too.)

I dress the seasoned tomatoes generously with olive oil.  My mother uses only regular olive oil, because she thinks that the flavor of extra virgin domineers over the tomato.  I likewise find some extra virgins too assertive for tomatoes, and if I do, I go half and half.  But if I have a mild or refined extra virgin, I’ll use it straight up.  Olive oil is to the savoring of tomatoes as are air and light to the seeing of colors:  olive oil is both medium and illumination.  To this day my youngest brother likes dipping crusty bread into the oil of tomato salad better than eating the tomatoes themselves.  By some osmotic distillation tomato flavor seems even more concentrated in the olive’s oil than in the tomato’s own flesh.

You need to mix your tomato salad to marry the flavors, liberate the aromas, and produce the coveted tomato liquor.  It would be easy, however, to mistake this salad as a mere mixture of our ingredients.  This is too simple a way of seeing it, and seeing it this way will prevent your hitting the mark of culinary simplicity that we seek.  In assembling the salad, we are seeking a balance of counterpoint.  The simplicity we seek lies in the proportion that underlies the emergent form of the whole. 

If you place a progression of harmonic chords in counterpoint to a beautiful melody, what emerges from the dynamism is not a mere sum of notes.  In their carefully proportioned unison, they produce a species of sound that not just any mix of notes produces.  Harmony is obvious to the ear and mind because it achieves the simplicity of a unified whole.  The sauce of a braised roast is achieved when you attain the right ratio between the meat’s own melted fat, its watery juices, the fat in which you browned it, and the wine, broth, herbs, and spices you add to them.  Such a balanced manifold is not a mere mixture. 

The simplicity of harmonized unity is what my people aim for in all their cooking.  If you strike the right balance among nature’s flavors, textures, aromas, colors—a culinary whole suddenly crystallizes.  When you get your tomato salad right, the beauty of tomato dawns glorious.  You’ll know it when it happens, and once you do, you’ll know it when it doesn’t too.  Ah, the agonies and the ecstasies!

Do I need to tell you to eat your tomato salad with crusty bread?  I think it obvious, but you Gentiles seem not to know the simplest things.  Once I took a young foodie out to eat in a fine Italian restaurant, and when he saw me wielding my fork in my right hand and taking bites from a crust of bread in my left, he said, “Oh, so you take bites of bread in between.”  From behind a courteous smile I looked out at him in dumb wonder, as at a thing half‑man, half‑beast, saying to him, “Yes, that’s how we do it,” and to myself, “And do you know to breathe in before you breathe out?”  A friend once invited me impromptu to supper saying, “I know you won’t be happy if there’s no bread, so bring it along, because we’re not bread people.”  Not bread people?  When you pray to God, do you say, “No need to give us this day our daily bread?”   

If you won’t be taught of God, Gentle Reader, then learn from Nature, who both grows you grain in abundance and sows yeast in your grain, to teach you how to raise dough and give a crust to your bread.  Olive oil teaches you to dip it.  It’s as simple as that.  Attend and be taught.     

The taste and feel of good Italian bread is as obvious as it is hard to find.  Good Italian bread is achieved by hitting the right balance between very few ingredients of the right sort baked in the right way.  It is an art form all its own, and in Brooklyn bread bakeries are distinct from pastry shops, which practice a different sort of art, a confectionary and sophistical one.  When I was growing up, my mother would go the bread bakery twice a day, because the bread available mid‑morning for lunch had been baked too early to still be at its prime by dinner time.  Those were the days.  Nowadays, once I find good bread, I buy it in quantity, cut it into daily portions, and freeze it.  I used to nuke it for a minute, which makes it disgustingly mushy, and then crisp it in a hot toaster oven (400° for 10 minutes); but since my microwave broke, I bake it wrapped in aluminum foil for 20 minutes, and then unwrap for another 10 minutes.  I also crisp fresh bread that has never been frozen.  Obviously, I eat only crispy bread with our food, and daily.

Tomato salad can be used as a side-dish, providing a reliably easy and satisfying Red for your summer plate.  But it can also serve as a salad after the main dish, in lieu of a salad of greens, with this stern caveat:  adding vinegar to tomato offends nature—not Mother Nature, but Tomato Nature.  At stake is not a mere mistake, but a vice.  Tomatoes are naturally acidic, and plentifully so, even if delicately so. It is this distinctive balance of delicacy and plenty that makes tomato acidity so delightful.  It doesn’t need more acid, let alone a less delicate acid such as that of vinegar—especially balsamic!  It’s obviously wrong, even if some Modern Italian convinced you while you were visiting Italy that dribbling some of his outrageously priced vintage balsamic was the thing to do.  

Listen to me and listen to its nature:  dress a tomato as we do, and if you hit the balance, it will be obvious that it needs nothing more. 

Of course, there’s no disputing taste—not because there’s no difference between good taste and bad taste, but because one can’t argue someone with bad taste into good taste.  Taste for yourself, and see.  It’s that simple.