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SALAD DAYS

Cindy Maddera

Last weekend, Michael and I stumbled upon the Lee’s Summit Farmer’s market by total accident. I yelled “STOP THE CAR!” and Michael found us a parking space. The first booth we went up to was selling mushrooms. They had a variety of ‘shrooms called Lion’s Mane that Michael and I had never seen before. We bought them for our camp dinner that night along with some asparagus and some heirloom tomatoes. We sautéed the mushrooms with the asparagus and sliced the tomatoes before sprinkling them with salt and pepper. The mushrooms were good, but it was after taking a bite of tomato where I thought “THIS! This is what I want to eat for the rest of the summer.” For years, I have watched my parents eat tomatoes this way and I never really got it. As a child, I found it down right disgusting. Then, it just became tolerable. Now, I want it every day.

There was a summer where I felt the same way about sliced jicama tossed with lime juice and cayenne pepper. The summer after Chris died, I lived on a shredded beet and carrot salad. Yes…everything was red. For weeks.

It just got warm around here. Or at least it has been for the last two or three weeks. It’s been the kind of warm muggy weather that makes you believe that it is Summer time. Today, not so much. A cold front moved through yesterday and the air has that feeling that it gets just when Summer starts thinking about Fall. But for a few days there, we had real summer days where I planned salads for almost every day of our meal plan. I pulled a salad recipe from our most recent Bon Appetit to go with our tuna steaks last night. Thinly sliced snap peas, cubed cantaloup, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, ancho chilly powder and sliced ricotta salata cheese. I threw in some arugula to stretch out the salad so I could have some for lunch the next day. We also could not find ricotta salata cheese, but the cheese person at Whole Foods pointed us to a good substitute that was not too pricey. I don’t even really like cantaloup, but toss it with greens, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and ancho and a good cheese and holy goats! That stuff’s delicious. We’ve also grown attached to an arugula, cherry tomato, avocado and red onion salad. The dressing is a simple homemade vinaigrette. Toss all that together and eat it straight out of the salad bowl.

As good as these salads have been, I still only want the salt and pepper tomatoes. But they have to be good tomatoes. Not those mealy flavorless things sold out of season in grocery stores. I want those bright red almost lumpy looking tomatoes that came from grandpa’s backyard. I am surprised by this new flavor attachment. My parents brought their southern Mississippi palates and tastes with them when they moved to Oklahoma and thats what I grew up eating. We didn’t fry our okra. We boiled it with tomatoes or pickled it. Nobody I know likes boiled okra except for me. Grits could either be sweet or savory, but usually sweet and creamy for breakfast. Michael and I were in a local diner for breakfast a long time ago. He ordered the cheesy grits. The waitress brought him a bowl of white instant grits topped with a slice of American cheese. I had to restrain myself from picking up the whole bowl and throwing it across the room. I ordered cheesy grits at a local hipster BBQ place once and they were crunchy because they didn’t cook them long enough. Michael politely told our waitress the grits were crunchy and we wanted to send them back. She replied “that’s just how we make them.” And I swear I felt all of my southern grandmas summersault in their graves.

Cornbread. Cornbread is not sweet like a cake. It’s made in a cast-iron skillet and should be eaten with every thing, but most definitely it should be crumbled into a glass of milk and then eaten with a spoon.

That first bite of that salt and pepper tomato triggered memories and smells of memories. Every hot Oklahoma Summer swirled into my head. All the summer days of bare feet and bicycles. Swimming in the galvanized stock tank my dad rolled into out back yard and filled up with the water hose. Sinking up to our knees in the mud as we played hide and seek in the corn. County fairs. Then there were the years where I’d only eat raw tomatoes if they were in salsa. The first time we took Chris to Colorado for a camping trip, we bought a giant tomato at the Boulder Farmer’s Market. When Mom sliced that tomato up to go with our dinner that night and then sprinkled it with salt and pepper, I was unenthusiastic, but I ate it. It hurts my heart a little to think about how much I under-appreciated that tomato.

Now I’m thinking about all the other things I may have under-appreciated.