Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Belated Gratitude and Tomatoes

Have you ever been in a long-term relationship, marriage or otherwise, where you know your partner as well as you know yourself?

You know everything about them; their likes, dislikes, childhood friends, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what pisses them off. You know how they'll react to anything. You've heard their stories a hundred times, but you still listen to them even if they bore you to tears. You know what kind of toothpaste they prefer and how much sugar to put in their coffee.

Yeah, like that.

And then, out of the blue, you learn something entirely new about them?

Like first date new. Like, Wow! Me too! new.

My wife and I are just about as good a fit as two people can be. We were a blind date, and by the end of that date we both had mutually decided that the two of us were going to get married- but, it was, oh, about a week or so before either of us mentioned it to the other. And by then we barely had to, because it was just so obvious that's where we were going. We've been married 16 years now, and I'd say we know each other pretty well indeed - if for no other reason than we've traveled literally tens of thousands of miles, thousands of hours, in a car together. A lot of it through places like the Yukon and the Northwest Territories where there are no radio stations - as such, you'd think just about every possible subject of conversation would have come up by now.

Apparently not.

We grew up widely separated. I was born and raised in the western part of Michigan's lower peninsula, where people eat oatmeal with margarine and brown sugar for breakfast and speak proper American English. My wife was born in New York, but raised in the panhandle of Florida, where people eat grits with butter and salt for breakfast and speak in an incomprehensible dialect centered around variations of the all-purpose contraction "ya'll." Where I grew up, there are two types of regular daily gravy, Brown and Chicken, and two types of holiday gravy, Turkey and Ham. Where my wife grew up, there is only one kind of gravy, White, and you eat it on everything. Where I grew up, about the only fried food was chicken, which came in a cardboard bucket when mom was too tired to cook, and the occasional pan-fried bluegill or perch. In my wife's household, everything was breaded and fried - and covered in white gravy. In the North we didn't barbeque, we "grilled out" in the backyard. In the South, BBQ is a complex art-form utilizing arcane and highly secret methodology involving smoke, pork, liquor, and several pickup trucks full of rednecks. In the South they eat "greens." In the North, we know grass clippings when we see them and we feed that shit to the livestock.

So, food-wise you wouldn't think we have a lot in common.

Not so.

We both purely detest tomatoes. Loath is not nearly a strong enough word. We can't stand 'em, neither one of us. This hatred is the bond that holds us together and gives us strength against a hostile and tomato loving world. It has kept us together for sixteen years and I suspect that we will be buried together at some indeterminate future date far removed from the tomato cultivating regions of the world.

Strangely, I do like ketchup, only the good kind, but my wife won't touch it. And both of us will eat tomato sauce on certain things such as pizza and lasagna, but only if there's not too much of it and it's not too tomatoee - if that's actually a word - and under no circumstance can there be any stinking chunks of tomato in the sauce.

I know that you will find this distaste strange and incomprehensible. My wife and I do realize that it is entirely possible that we are the only two people on the planet who hate tomatoes, and we're good with that. Hell, even my own mother simply can't believe that I find tomatoes revolting, and I'm sure that both of my parents wonder if the hospital screwed up and gave them the wrong baby. See, my folks love tomatoes. Absolutely love the goddamned things. They eat tomatoes all of the time, stewed, canned, sliced, diced, pickled, juiced, on a chair with a bear and in a house with a mouse.

Now my mom is good cook, and she often made things that I loved - but, at least once a week we'd have something with tomatoes in it and I could barely stand the smell, let alone choke down dinner. God forbid there would be stewed tomatoes - which my dad relishes with great gusto. Gah! The smell alone made me want to vomit.

However, the good news is that if the tomatoes were a side dish, like the stewed variety, I was allowed to take a pass.

The bad news, of course, was that if tomatoes were part of the main course, well I was required to eat them. Usually, I could pick around them, or push them to the side, but there was one dish that I feared and hated above all else. One dish that my mother made at least once a month that I dreaded and feared and despised. One dish that I could not avoid or work around. One dish that the mere thought of, thirty years later, makes me shudder. I haven't thought about it in years, you might even call it one of those 'repressed memories' shrinks are so fond of. Childhood trauma, long repressed - and, I thought, unique to me because I've never seen or heard of it in any other household. I would, of course, take as little as possible of it. And I would push it around the plate and spread it out as much possible to make it look like I was actually eating it - all the while contemplating thoughts of running away to join the circus where I would eat nothing but corn dogs and cotton candy. My mother, of course, was not fooled by these diversionary tactics. A child of The Great Depression and of frugal Dutch extraction - she'd make damned sure you cleaned your plate no matter how painfully long it took - and it often took forever. Which led, inevitably, to the stern matronly lecture of starving children in Africa and the fact that I should be grateful that I had anything to eat at all. But try as I might, I could never be grateful for that meal. Ever.

All of which which brings me to this: The other day I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. As usual, my wife was sitting on a stool behind the island, and we were talking about our day. And for some reason, the subject of our mutual tomato hatred came up. And my wife casually mentioned a certain dish her mother used to make, which my wife hated and despised and was traumatized by - and it was none other than my own childhood nemesis!

Have you figured it out yet?

Yes, it's that revolting 1960's, lower middle class, blue-collar staple: American Hamburger Goulash - a horrifying abomination of hamburger, onions, green peppers, elbow macaroni, and stewed tomatoes. I would cheerfully burn Betty Cocker's checkered apron in effigy for perpetuating this putrescent sin against culinary nature. If there is any 'American Comfort Food' more disturbing and less comforting than this repugnant atrocity I don't know what it is, unless it is the 1970's school lunch version commonly called 'schoolash' - a salmonella seasoned mix of grade-B leftover burger patties, macaroni, and tomato soup warmed to the temperature of an hour-dead corpse by a bank of heat lamps and dehydrated to the consistency of old toenails by the hair-netted expertise of sadistic lunch ladies. Often served with 'garlic toast' made from yesterday's hamburger buns and some kind of industrial urinal disinfectant.

I haven't thought about goulash in years and, yeah, it's a small thing. But, sixteen years my wife and I have been married, and I just now discovered that she had almost exactly the same childhood experience as I - and nearly identical comments regarding it. Something new in conversation. Something that tells me she'll always surprise me. And it's just one more thing that tells us how good of a match we are. One more thing that I love about her. One more thing that makes me wonder what else is left to discover about the woman I can't imagine life without.

How cool is that?

So, yeah, after all these years I guess I finally am grateful for the goulash - if only because it gives me yet another reason to love my wife.


  1. Jim,

    What a nice story. I hope that The Husband and I will still surprise each other after 16 years and many more miles...

    You can add another one to your list -- The Husband also despises tomatoes with a purple passion, will eat ketchup on hamburgers (if A-1 (gack) isn't available, and picks tomatoes out of my spaghetti sauce. He gets very annoyed if it is too tomato-y and has voiced that (loudly) to me. My daughter is turning out to be his tomato-hating clone. I, OTOH, am from NJ and love a good ripe tomato, chunky tomato sauce, and (hold your nose) even stewed tomatoes in small amounts. I'd even eat American Hamburger Goulash, although I've never had the opportunity...

  2. Jim, leave it to you to turn a putrid pile of yuck into a romantic encounter.


    How's Beastly dealing with the Tomato Embargo?

  3. That goulash thing sounds pretty good actually...

    Out of curiosity, does the boy like tomatoes?

  4. Beastly mostly takes care of himself. He and I have known each other longer than I have known my wife, and I know him almost as well as I do her (excluding the whole biblical sense thing eheh heh). So I fix what I know we all like.

    If he feels the need for a tomato or two, he'll pick a couple up at the store when he's out buying smokes or something and add them to his portion of whatever we're having.

    And yes, the kid likes tomatoes, the cherry one especially. He has them on salads and such when we get dinner out.

  5. Michael and I aren't thrilled about tomatoes, but not to that degree.

    Oh, and Jim? It's y'all not "ya'll"

    Contraction of you all.


  6. Michelle, I was a Sailor, so when you say y'all or ya'll I hear Yawl - as in a two-masted mizzen rigged sloop.

  7. Jim, both my husband and myself are tomato haters. We both like ketchup, and he enjoys a tomato sauce on pizza and pasta, as long as the tomatoes are pureed to their proper liquid form. Both of our children are the same.
    The difference is he LOVES the Goulash thing. Grew up on it, and it is a comfort food for him. I however cannot be in the home when it is being served. Which is a problem, since he does not cook. AT ALL.
    As a testament to our love after 18 years, I will make him this...meal (and i use that word loosely) for a special occasion..once a year.

    Here is to another 16 years of joint tomato loathing...

  8. MWT - it is pretty good stuff, especially oif you get creative and add cumin or other spices to the meat.

    But as an afficonado of Eastern Eurpoean food, I must say that it has nothing to do with real goulash (even if you add paprika). The term "American Chop Suey" is also common from Jersey to New England, and is another offence against the orginal dish (even is Chop Suey is a cantonese-American invantion).

  9. Sorry, grew up in Southern Jersey where you can practically breath the tomatoes. Still love them.

    My wife does most of our cooking and in all the years she's only made one thing I just can't stand (although she has a penchant for lamb or pork chops, which don't thrill me). Ginger ham. Couldn't bear it.

    So now she waits for me to go away so she can make it for herself.

  10. I like tomatoes in salads and on hamburgers, BLTs, etc. I'm not a stewed tomato fan unless its used to make things like chili. I'm not a ketchup fan (unless it's used to make good meat loaf) and I strongly agree about the Goulash thing.

    My daughter hates tomatoes and all thing tomatoee. If we eat out, she will order spaghetti without sauce and ask for shredded cheese to put on it. If we order pizza, she will order it without the sauce. She gets very strange looks, but she doesn't care, and I always feel sorry on those rare occasions when some poor waitperson makes any comment about her order, as she will gladly and loudly explain her distaste for all things tomato.

    And no, she doesn't care if it embarrases her poor ol' dad.

  11. I wouldn't touch a tomato until I was about 20 years old. The whole spurting seeds thing grossed me out.

    Guess what? Now I love 'em...in anything. Hell, when we grow them I'll eat them by themselves like apples. Yum!

    (And that whole white gravy thing? Uhuh!)

  12. Sheet! Gall-ey! Yawl keel me wit shore sloop-y ketch-up stories!

    "American Hamburger Goulash" is not something I've ever heard of. Nor had I heard of "American Chop Suey" util I came to New England. We just called it Beefafoni, and it is goo-ood. Even better when you grate some cheddar into the leftovers, and have beefaroni-and-cheese! Yum.

    Tomatoes are a red-blooded (wince) American fruit. Don't you be trashing no tomatoes.

    And, I have to say, your ooooh, aaah couple's story is contrary to the spirit of Nathan's "too much cuteness" post for today. But I'm just a romantic at heart. I like it!

  13. Nathan's post not withstanding, I did get some serious romantic points with my wife for this post - so neener neener neener, Nathan.

    And Tom? A ketch is spanker rigged, vice mizzen rigged - but they are indeed both sloops :)

  14. Jim, I didn't ask for an embargo until this morning, so it's all good.

  15. Your story about hating certain foods as a child, and your mom's resorting to appeals to the plight of starving children in Africa to get you to eat it, reminded me of what my mom used to do. And how I got her to stop.

    When I was showing reluctance to eat certain foods (broccoli is vile and asparagus is evil) Mom would tell me to, "Think of all the starving children in China."

    Until, one day, I asked, "Then why don't we let them have this?"

    She never again asked me to, "Think of all the starving children in China.", and soon after stopped serving broccoli, asparagus, and brussel sprouts.

  16. mythusmage, you don't know my mom. Such smart Alec comments to her would have led to very bad things - often beginning with a discussion of "lard sandwiches" which was often all she had to eat during the Great Depression. Really, better to eat the damned tomatoes. :)

  17. James, who died and made you me? You weren't there, you don't know what happened. Do not ascribe behaviors to the eight year old boy I was in 1962.

  18. mythusmage, huh?

    I was joking, did I somehow offend you? Or are you being too subtle for me?

  19. mythusmage: It sounded to me like Jim was talking about smart-alecky comments he made to his mom, not trying to say that you would've made such comments to yours (or his).

  20. MWT, I meant exactly what I said, talking back to my mom was, and is, not a good idea - this is why I used the term "you don't know my mom," as in my mom. Additionally, telling her to send my portion to starving kids in China or elsewhere would not have been regarded as either clever or witty, and would have been unlikely to result in a change in her behavior - though it would probably have resulted in a change in mine.

    Frankly, I'm more than a bit irritated by some anonymous dipshit surfing into my site, making a comment and then getting all bent out of shape and offended when I respond in my usual fashion. For a guy who claims to be 54 years old, he acts more like some 17 year snotty kid. If Myth Mage the Warcraft Wizard doesn't like how I talk or my sense of humor he's welcome to fuck right off back to the magical internet fantasy world from whence he came.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.