My family’s common denominator is the tomato. Everybody grew them, stewed them, ate them and appreciated them. Everybody except me, that is. I was never beaten with one, or embarrassed by one, or became mortally sick by ingesting one. I simply did not like them. And, yet, they were everywhere, in every dish, a determined and incessant presence with a bitter smell and a slimy texture.
When you reveal to someone that you dislike tomatoes, inevitably the question follows, Have you ever tried one? This exasperates me. As a full grown adult married with children, who has held jobs, gone to school, and solved a whole host of complex problems, one could safely assume, Yes, of course, I have tried one and I did not like it. If I had a dollar for every time someone sincerely asked me that question over the years, I would be able to buy my own island and create the only place in the entire world that would be completely tomato-free.
Mom was convinced that my tomato aversion was a passive-aggressive election, that I was using the fruit to assert my independence, a latent defiant nature. Determined to prove her point, she would smuggle them into every morsel she prepared. She buried them in salad dressings, stuffed them into sandwiches, chopped them into microscopic bits, and folded them into sauces and meats. The red pepper ruse was a desperate affair, incredibly deceptive, openly declaring those tiny red squares to be something my discerning eyes and palette knew they clearly weren’t. Her efforts had a contrary effect. I developed into a finely tuned picker-and-flicker. A tomato ninja. Even today, I close my eyes, and with Jedi precision I find them. All of them.
In college I wrote a paper for a psychology class about the probable root of my tomato issue. We had been learning about all sorts of pathologies, psych horoscopes general enough to make you think that you and everyone you have ever known is a semi-psychopath, and I thought this might just be where my answers could be found. The assignment was to write a paragraph about one of the disorders we had discussed, so I wrote a ten-page in-depth analysis of the tomato and how it correlated to my intense dislike of individuals with similar traits: thin-skinned, fragile, bitter, duplicitous. I stayed up all night writing, and at the next class as everyone handed in their one and two paragraphs, I plopped my pile of life-changing observations and theories with a soft thud that only the wrinkly professor and a couple of other girls in line noticed. Satisfied, I slid back into my seat, knowing that life could very well be different after this moment. I may be asked to guest lecture on the nuances of behavioral observations and their relations to food fetishes. Or, about how I was able to cure myself of a slight phobia. Life was taking an exciting turn, indeed.
I couldn’t wait for the next class, about which I made several promises to God. I swore I would try very, very hard to never skip it again. I vowed that despite the comforting baritone humming barely above a whisper, and the rhythmic lullaby of chalk dancing in hypnotic cursive circles across the blackboard, I would not fall asleep. I promised to stop asking questions. At the end of the lecture, we single-filed out the door, each handed our graded work on the way. I held out my hand and the professor tapped my forearm a couple of times and asked me to step aside, that he wanted to have a word with me in private. I was thrilled! We were going to delve into this once and for all, really pick apart the clues and find some answers, and then move on to other world challenges and write some books together.
In his office, I settled into a stiff wooden armchair, one that doesn’t want you to get too comfortable, under the gaze of thousands of dusty ancient volumes on endless rows of shelves. My professor leaned in, lightly placing the tomato tome in front of me, pressing his hand to it for a moment, as though it might leap back into his arms and he was reassuring it to be still. Shuffling to his desk, he silently took a seat. He cleared his throat a few times. He brushed at invisible things on the polished mahogany space in front of him. He moved an empty engraved silver and leather pen holder slightly to the right. Then, entwining his fingers he looked at me. Intently. After a deep sigh, and in a gentle tone, he declared: Erin, some people just don’t like tomatoes.
I was stunned. Firstly, I had been told my entire life that, everyone, in fact, did like tomatoes. If you didn’t like them, you were either lying or something was wrong with you. It was an illness, not an allowable preference. But it wasn’t until he started to chuckle that I realized that my efforts had not been taken seriously. He found my earnest work entertaining, not enlightening.
On that agonizing revelation, I silently gathered my thesis-that-almost-was and drifted out the door, quietly closing it behind me. I felt as though I had been kicked out of a spaceship and instead of careening through the atmosphere and smashing into earth, I just floated around aimlessly, devoid of gravity or time-space continuum. He gave me extra credit for my hard work and asked me to complete the original assignment with a strict adherence to the one or two paragraph specification, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something had been lost. No books would be written; no cures discovered. Just another day as a human being with simple answers and common sense and a lot of blah blah blah.
My professor’s words still echo in my mind. In this tomato-oriented world where it is inexplicably both the fruit and the vegetable in every restaurant in America, somehow making its way to the forefront of nutrition on a lycopene wave of false promises, we are out there, the dislikers, everywhere, misunderstood rebels against a red tomato brigade, without excuses or shame. I even married one. And so the irony is that one of my least memorable college courses, taught by one of my least favorite professors, was also the one that seared an ownership into my consciousness: the stupefying and liberating declaration that some people just don’t like tomatoes.