About time, tomatoes and watermelon

by Don Curto

watermelon-154510_640Life and time are not all about me, of course, but I will use my birth date of August 16, 1923 as a starting point for this column. Birthdays bring on reflections. In my experience and judgment, very little of the “old days” were times as good as today. About the only thing I can certify was better in those old days was my age.
Younger is not always better, but in most instances (despite our purported wisdom), it beats age. In my early Marine Corps days, I could do a hundred pushups before breakfast. And I sometimes did them with a hangover.
There have been no hangovers for many years, but there are times when my still quite young-thinking brain tells my body to do something and the request is rejected immediately.
Time did move more slowly then. An hour was really sixty minutes, and a minute, sixty seconds. It is rare today, even searching in old closets or in the stacks of the U of M library, where there once rested a favorite Shakespeare Folio, to locate an hour of such length.
As time passes, we get cheated by bogus hours. You may think I imagine this, but just you wait—if you are lucky enough, you will see that I tell only the truth. Fifty years from now, if the world still supports humans, you will find that the hour of that time will have shrunk greatly from today’s.
As you know by now, I am not a believer in calling up the past as a better time with better foods. However, there are some things today that truly are such junk compared to the “olden days” they are worth noting. The first is the modern tomato, which really should be written with quotation marks setting it off, as in “tomato.” (I suppose one could say a “tomato by any other name is still a rose.” This could bring denunciation upon my writings.)
Let’s dispense with the “heirloom” tomato first. It has mostly snob appeal. I have not yet tasted one that tastes like a tomato. I have seen some ugly ones, however.
In past years, including 2008, I was able to find tomatoes which were real…real in appearance, real in taste. Increasingly, however, tomatoes are being grown successfully with travel properties as their main characteristic.
We, the consumers, are the ones at fault because many of us demand salads with edible tomatoes in the winter. Even in January, some of the tomatoes on the market look very good, feel very good, but are terrible.
Combine this drive for appearance and constant availability with the increasing lack of discernment on the part of the customer, and what do you get? Today’s tomato is what you get: part crushed drywall, part red dye and a weight that runs the price up. Increasingly, the tomato on the market especially in the winter season is on the way to becoming an inedible product. Most of those tomatoes that were real in the summer were local. But this year has not been a good tomato year, anywhere.
I have developed a recipe for a tomato pasta sauce that makes the use of the tomato feasible. This is for one person, but easily expanded. I sometimes use it for breakfast, to try to begin my day with flavor. The original base for this sauce was a French recipe I reported in a recent column.
Take an eight-inch sauté pan and put about two tablespoons of butter in the pan. Melt over medium heat and add two thick slices of tomato, three if the tomato is small. Salt well, pepper heavily with coarse black pepper. Cook slowly without letting the tomato slices get either brown or black. After a few minutes, turn the slices over, salt and pepper again.
Cook until tomatoes are soft. Add some hot pepper flakes; go easy until you find out just how hot you want this dish to be. Now, pour in about two ounces of whipping cream. Bring to boil, reduce slightly. Using a table knife, cut the tomato slices into small pieces. They will tend to disperse into the cream. You will have cooked some pasta already and have drained it. Put what you want to eat into the pan, mix with sauce, put on plate. Enjoy.
A note on whipping cream. I think Jilbert’s is the only locally available cream that has no additives. Read the ingredient list. Read the ingredient list on all the foods you purchase.
Stay away from Morning Glory brand. Here is the ingredient list for that product, which should not be called whipping cream, but is a substance that can be whipped, if you should wish to eat something like this.
Here we go: cream, carrageenan, mono-digiclycerides, polysorbate 80, cellulose gum. Good quality whipping cream should have a butter fat content of between thirty-six and forty percent. Using the additives noted above permits the use of lower butterfat content. It’s all about money.
The other product from my childhood that has changed drastically is the watermelon. The old watermelon had seeds, lots of them and was sweet, sweet, sweet. From time to time, we had contests to see who could spit a seed farthest. Then there was the old story that a pregnant woman got that way by swallowing a watermelon seed. Makes a kind of sense, don’t you think? For kids, it’s better than the other explanation. So what to do with today’s flat-tasting watermelon? Here’s a watermelon salad I saw in a deli in Chicago. Try it; it’s good.
Get about an eight-pound seedless watermelon. Prepare the following: julienne about a 1/4 pound of red onions; 1/2 ounce of fresh mint, cut into chiffonade; crumble about a half pound of good feta cheese; prepare a 1/4 cup of fresh lime juice.
Remove the rind from the watermelon and cut into one inch cubes. Place in a colander and allow to drain for fifteen minutes.
In a large serving bowl combine the onions, mint chiffonade and the lime juice. Gently toss to combine. Cool to forty degrees.
Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and the crumbled feta.
That’s about the best I can do for this month. Read the special bulletin below.

Special Bulletin to MM
Well! They are doing it again. You know who they are. They are the Marquette Elite who just can’t leave well enough alone. They started the destruction of Old Marquette when they moved the coal dock from the downtown harbor to Presque Isle. And left a space that today is mostly green grass and some trees.
They took away our high ranking on the list of the ugliest and dirtiest city harbors in the United States. Then they tore up the lower rail yards to put in what look to be some really strange houses.
Before that they tore down the rail overpass across Front Street to the ore dock. One of these days, you mind my words they will try to remove the ore dock itself. In the last few years, they have been planting flowers all over town, flowers that release their poison pollens to make us sneeze.
Some idiot has even suggested we abandon the name Queen City of the North and call Marquette the Flower City of the North. Flowers are just a waste of good money; they mostly all die when the snow comes, anyway.
Now, can you believe it? They are paving the few original streets in the northern part of the city. Those streets have been gravel since the city was founded. Now they lose their distinction and will look smooth and black just like all the other streets.
What great historic monument will they attack next? My best guess is they will want to remove the old Delft Theatre canopy on Washington Street, claiming it is ugly and on its way to becoming a hazard as well as a garbage can for junk along the street.
You know what? Former citizens of Marquette will return and not know that this is the city they left. Stop all this stuff they are doing before we become a modern, beautiful city, with Freedom, Justice and Health Care for all.
—Don Curto

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