Stewed Tomatoes
(Tokoni 06/15/2009)

When I was a kid my momma taught me lesson, one that I’ll never forget, and which was to serve me well in lean times, because I was to see much leaner times ahead.

We were poor, no doubt. When my dad would be gone we’d be even poorer, for he would take his money with him, setting up his household in some foreign land, and sending only dribbles of cash back home. He’s always been selfish with his money like that, putting himself and his tastes before that of his wife and kids. And if it meant that his kids had to go hungry and his wife starve while he frolicked with his Asian whores and spent his time in bars – then so be it. We just got screwed that way. And he wouldn’t let my mom work, which only exacerbated the situation. Everyday items were scarce – clothes, shoes, and even something we take for granted: a meal you could walk away from and not still be hungry. It used to be a running joke: there was only one loaf of bread in the ‘hood; we’d all just trade it around so that someone could say they had bread in the house. Think about that some, and you might get some dim understanding of how poor that is, where a dozen families can only afford one loaf of bread, and then no one dares eat it, just in case someone else might want some. And let that tell you how close knit all these families were, where everyone was always helping out one another, no matter that they were barely surviving themselves; chipping in despite the fact that they might go hungry, just so that the family next to them wouldn’t starve.

During a particular season food had become particularly scarce. There was no meat for a long long time, I remember that; just a few slices of bacon to go with the eggs my mom would get from the chicken man who’d come around each week, and then even that disappeared. He sold chickens as well; unfortunate old hens which had stopped laying, but even those had gotten beyond our budget. For supper my mom would cut some hot dogs into long quarters, cooking them in tomato soup, and serving it over some noodles. Each of us would get three or four slices; no more. That was the meal. Finally we were down to biscuits and grits, and a few canned goods in the pantry. Times were lean; I don’t know if you can understand that, how it is to go hungry, but not be hungry because you know it’s no use; where the pain in your belly becomes just a small hard knot, like a fist you come to ignore. You tend to accept it, especially as a kid, because you have no choice. It simply is the way things are; everyone around you is hungry, you know there is no food, so there’s no sense in asking for any. You just make do and endure, and wish you could eat bugs like the birds do, or dirt like a worm. It got so bad the woman next door was harvesting dandelion greens, but my mom wouldn’t stoop to that. They were just weeds to her mid-western attitude; meanwhile you’d find us kids sucking on broken pine needles. Odd how that dry, piny taste could cut your hunger pains.

This one day I come in for lunch, and I guess things had gotten bad. She puts a small saucer in front of me, and on it are a scattering of sliced, stewed canned tomatoes – nothing else. Just those stewed tomatoes. And I hated tomatoes.

Turning up my nose, I fuss and tell her “I’m not eating these! I HATE tomatoes!” – which is something she knows, but I don’t care. I’m not having anything to do with it. I’d rather suck on dry pine needles instead, and eat a few hand scoops of sand instead (something I wasn’t above doing).

Well, she makes me sit there for about an hour – me staring at those red nasty things swimming in juice on the plate – before she decides she’s had enough.

“Fine!” she says, whisking the plate away. “Go out and play! You’ll get hungry soon enough!”

So I do. I go outside and play. Why not? Supper will roll around. And eventually it does.

Come supper time I walk into the house. There’s the warm smell of hot dogs cooking in tomato sauce (which oddly enough I liked) – and we sit down to eat. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. And as I sit down –

She slides that plate of tomatoes in front of my nose. And then she and my brother sit down to a nice plate full of noodles and sliced up hot dogs, swimming in tomato sauce. The stewed tomatoes are cold; she’s place them in the refrigerator. I look up at her in confusion as she begins to eat; my brother, seeing my dilemma, just grins and helps himself to some more hot dog slices.

“Can – can I have some?” I ask, gesturing towards the steaming supper.

“Yes,” my mom says, looking meaningfully at me. “Just as soon as you eat those.” She nods towards that chilled plate of sliced and stewed tomatoes.

Yuck, I think. I push the plate away. I see the trick now, and I’m not falling for it. I’m still not hungry enough to eat those nasty ol’ things. And I sit there and watch, and eventually they are through, she cleans up the table, leaving me staring at that saucer full of tomatoes, swimming in their red juice.

“Well?” she demands. “Are you going to eat those?”

I shake my head in firm denial. I’ll be darned if I’m going to eat them. I’d rather eat the leaves off the bushes in the front yard than eat those. As a matter of fact, those bushes are starting to look pretty good. I sneak out a little bit later on, and grab me some more pine needles. Sucking on their ends leaves your mouth dry, but they do cure your hunger a little bit.

The next morning: the smell of frying eggs. She’s making eggs and toast. What a treat! My mouth is watering as I walk into the kitchen. She begins to set the table; I set myself down in my customary place; where my dad would sit, if he was at home. But he’s not there so I can sit there.

And she slides that saucer full of sliced stewed tomatoes in front of my face.

Oh God, I think with dismay. The juice has congealed a bit; has a bit of a skin. The orange-yellow seeds are swimming in it. Yuck. She sits down with my brother, and they begin to eat their eggs and toast.

“Can I have some?” I meekly ask.

“Just as soon as you finish your tomatoes,” she says, nodding towards my plate.

I look down. My stomach is rumbling. It actually hurts, and bad. I pick up my fork. I pick at the tomatoes. They swim around in their own blood. I turn to her.

“I’m not eating these!” I say.

“Fine,” she says. “You can go without breakfast today.”

That day, during lunch: same thing. My brother gets peanut butter sandwiches; I get the plate of stewed tomatoes. My brother eats his lunch; I refuse the tomatoes. My mom has no problem with that. She simply whisks the plate away when the meal is done, and slides them back into the refrigerator.

Supper – same thing. I don’t know what they had, but I know what was presented to me. And I didn’t eat them. Sliced stewed tomatoes: what a disgusting thing!

Breakfast again; tomatoes again. Again I shake my head in negation. But by now I’m more than hungry; the pine needles are working anymore. I’ve been stripping leaves from the bushes, but they are thick and nasty.

Come that third day, when she slid those tomatoes back in front of me for lunch?

I ate them. Glad and happy to do so. Because she had made me realize: when you are really hungry, you’ll eat anything. Even if it is sliced stewed tomatoes.

A lesson well learned.