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Mrs. Kumar and the Green Thumb
Roma's Mamma let out a deep sigh. Of course she adored her gap-toothed 7 year old, and of course Roma's unruly curls and bright saucer-shaped eyes made her heart ache with love. But Roma was on summer break after her very first year of school, and running her mother ragged. In her enthusiasm, Roma cut up the newspaper that morning to make collages before her mother even had a chance to open it. She then wore her party frock out to play and came home with a good portion of the lacy hem in shreds. "I wish you weren't so brash and destructive, baby", her mother wailed, "Do you know how much we pay for the newspaper subscription? Do you know how much that fancy skirt cost me? Money doesn't grow on trees, you know".
Indeed, Mamma's life revolved around how stuff did not grow on trees and why this was the reason Roma should behave herself. Sensing her mother's mood, Roma wisely crawled through a gap in the fence and escaped next door to visit her best friend, Mrs. Kumar. Mrs. Kumar was 63 years old but had the impish grin and twinkling eyes of a 10-year old. A retired high school teacher, she had the time and the energy to engage Roma in endless banter about everything and nothing. Unruly children did not faze her one little bit.
That afternoon, Roma found Mrs. Kumar hunched over in her dusty backyard shed, rummaging for old plastic containers and rusty gardening tools. What in the world? Mrs. Kumar straightened up and announced that she was growing tomatoes this summer. "Do you know how?" was Roma's question and Mrs. Kumar had to admit that she did not have a clue. All her life she had lived in a tiny apartment with a lone independent-minded tulsi plant that thrived for decades, and a succession of needy potted roses that perished in her care.
But what I don't know, I can find out- this was Mrs. Kumar's motto, and she collected advice, manure and seedlings from helpful neighbors, some of whom were commercial farmers. Over the next several weeks, Roma and Mrs. Kumar taught themselves to become amateur gardeners, planting tomatoes, methi seeds, baby eggplants and coriander, gushing over their growing saplings, wailing over unexpected pests and cultivating patience above all else as they waited to reap their harvest.
Each had personal breakthroughs. When a noisy and furious thunderstorm arrived one afternoon without warning, Roma forgot that she was terrified of storms, instead pressing her nose to the window and hoping fervently that her little plants would not keel over. The arrival of the methi marked the first time in Roma's short history that she willing put a leafy green vegetable in her mouth- a spoonful of Mrs. Kumar's simple aloo-methi subzi wrapped in a warm roti. Mrs. Kumar, usually pristine in her starched cottons, started favoring wrinkled faded salwars instead. Normally averse to exercise of any kind, she felt so invigorated by gardening that she decided to take long sunset walks every day.
When the first tomatoes were ready to be picked, Mrs. Kumar and Roma made an elaborate ritual of consuming them by making cheese tomato toast. It was a recipe Mrs. Kumar's daughter had conjured up years ago, as a teenager feeding a ravenous after-school appetite while mom was at work. Since then, it had become a family favorite.
Roma got busy under Mrs. Kumar's supervision. Fresh sliced bread was obtained from the town's only bakery. Amul butter was set out to soften. Cheese cubes were grated into a snowy white mound. Finally, the stage was set and four warm ripe tomatoes were harvested with great care, sliced and tucked into sandwiches. An old blackened sandwich toaster was pulled out to make golden toasts, oozing with melted cheese and fragrant tomatoes. The two best friends sat down to a lunch that had been months in the making. The summer was a success and what a memorable time it had been.
This afternoon, here is Roma, helping Mamma put away the weekly groceries. Mamma picks up a sack of tomatoes from the store and wrinkles her nose, "Ugh, this one has a rotting spot, out it goes", and starts to throw the tomato into the garbage. Roma's chubby hand shoots out and catches the tomato just in time. "Let's cut the spot out and eat the tomato, Mamma", she says, "...tomatoes grow on trees, you know."
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Cheese tomato toast is a family favorite for me too. My aunt and uncle in South Bombay would often make it right around 4 PM when everyone was clamoring for a filling snack.
When I make it in my kitchen now, I use fresh sliced bread, unsalted butter, a combination of pepper jack and sharp cheddar cheeses, and a heavy shower of freshly ground pepper. This treat is reserved for the peak of summer because it depends on sweet, flavorful tomatoes. In lieu of a handy sandwich toaster, I simply grill the sandwiches on a cast iron griddle.
Ketchup is the traditional and authentic accompaniment to cheese tomato toast, but if you want to kick up the heat, add a dollop of green chili chutney to the ketchup.
How can something so simple be this good? Oh, that's right, only something so simple can be this good.
Have a wonderful weekend, and I will see you on Tuesday the 26th with the potluck buffet.