Tomato Season

My grandmother’s cooking is legendary in my family. My mother’s mother delighted in hospitality. Her dinner parties featured curated menus and beautiful place settings. With the first chill in the air came slow-cooked roast beef that fell off the bone into a yogurt-thickened gravy, nargisi koftay (the luxurious Mughal antecedent to scotch eggs—named for how hard-boiled eggs resemble “nargis” or narcissus flowers), pulao with juicy basmati rice and plump raisins, fragrant orange Bundt cakes and roasted walnut brownies glistening with ganache. The summer breeze would bring milkshakes made from farm-fresh mangoes and a vanilla ice cream somewhere between soft serve and frozen custard.

By the time I came to consciousness, she had already suffered a heart attack. Life’s stresses had taken a toll even though she kept her diet heart-healthy. My great aunt and my mother tell me she religiously avoided anything that was considered “fattening,” like many women of her generation (of course back then that meant banishing ghee and cream and swapping butter for oil in cakes). She looked phenomenal in a sari, but I wonder how much she got to enjoy her own cooking.

Food is so political, especially for women who often must literally shrink themselves to fit in. As the space for the body acceptance movements that dominated the last decade begins to narrow once more, clichéd though it may be, I worry that we will overlook the true essence of people in favor of their outer shells. Regardless of the underlying factors—whether it was stress, a genetic propensity or just fate’s cruel hand—the fact was that by the time I started to get to know my grandma, she was already sick. Illness had staked its claim on her, waiting like a slithering thief intent on stealing our time together.

Still, I remember her as the kind of person who lit up every room she entered. To this day, everyone who knew her sings her praises. She passed the same year as Princess Diana, a member of the royal family of the country that had occupied hers when she was a child.

As news of that death rocked the world, we were still reeling from the loss rocking our own little world. In my toddler mind the two mournings blended together. So closely did the outpouring of love for the people’s princess mirror the way everyone spoke of my grandmother, that she became larger than life. Piecing together the details, I can tell now that she felt a little too much—she could show up for others in a way that only the truly empathetic can. A flame that burned so bright and too fast.

‘Piecing together the details, I can tell now that she felt a little too much.’

All I had were fragmented memories and stories, so I hung onto them. The memories are calcified into pictures in photo albums and hazy recollections. I remember her kind dark eyes, head of gray hair, and face framed by a heart-shaped hairline. I remember snuggling up next to her in her bed. I remember a hospital curtain, carpeted stairs, and the gravy-drenched fried peas and French fries she served with roasted chicken.

But what I remember most are the tomato and cream cheese sandwiches “we” would make “together” in the stolen moments we had—just the two of us—in the hours my older sister was at school and my parents were at work. I use scare quotes because she made them and I watched, but she made me feel I was part of the process, too.

She would take two slices of white bread. The bread was thick, pillowy and pre-sliced. This was before artisanal bakeries became trendy in our city and long before the sourdough baking epidemic took the world by storm. She’d slather the bread with cream cheese triangles that came wrapped in silvery foil—pulling the red plastic thread to slice a triangle open and divide it between two pieces of bread. Then, she’d cut thin rounds of fresh tomatoes—plump with flavor, a clean burst of summer—and lay them on the bed of cream cheese. With a sprinkle of rock salt and a dash of fresh cracked pepper, she’d tuck the tomatoes in with a piece of bread and cut the sandwich into smaller triangles.

I’m not sure why we made the sandwiches together. Maybe they made for a convenient light snack, maybe she was too sick to eat heavier fare, maybe I was too young to take to richer foods, or maybe it was just tomato season.

I never asked, or if I did, I forgot the answer.

I often think of how Taylor Swift talks about her grandmother Marjorie in the song she named for her. “Marjorie” is a simple song about experiencing a loss before you’re able to conceptualize its gravity.

“I should’ve asked you questions, I should’ve asked you how to be, asked you to write it down for me, should’ve kept every grocery store receipt, ’cause every scrap of you would be taken from me,” she sings.

I can relate. I never asked my grandma how to be, so I want to hold on to all the little things. Though my mom has passed down all her recipes, I find myself coming back to the simplest one the most. The one we shared. In the end, we yearn for the mundane— for our loved ones’ grocery store receipts. For me, the precious mundane is a sandwich that can infuse any ordinary summer day with magic. She may have been gone awhile, but I’ll always know she’s just one sandwich away.

I’ll slice a tomato and all the memories will come flooding back.

Sauleha Kamal is a Pakistani-American researcher and writer. Her PhD work looks at the connections between the novel, empathy and human rights and problematizes these connections in terms of the economic aims of the literary marketplace. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other places.

Photo caption: Left to right, Kamal’s uncle Khurram, her grandmother Farkhanda, her aunt Saima (foreground in glasses) with aunt Sophia behind her; and her mother, Fauzia (in braids).

Photo credit: Courtesy Sauleha Kamal.