Sit at the dinner table #2 Sugar Sprinkled Tomato (西红柿拌白糖), a Childhood Treat in the Summer and My Journey to Find the Best Tomatoes

One Saturday night, I saw a friend’s post of being at the Grainger County Tomato Festival. Grainger County tomato is our family’s favorite that we are looking forward to it each year when summer begins. We didn’t want to miss this special festival so I quickly searched to learn it went on the next day, Sunday afternoon until 5:00. My daughter had a soccer game at 12:00 on Sunday, but we were determined to make it.
The game was ended around 2:00, we had a quick bite of lunch, got into the car again, headed to Grainger County. Driving about an hour, mostly in winding country road, among lush green fields in between hills, we managed to catch the ending of this weekend festival arriving there around 4:00. We did not pay much attention to other things, all we want is Grainger County tomatoes!
We bought a whole box of it.

It is a long journey to find Grainger County tomatoes. They have the best taste we can find, beating even most of the ones from the local farmer’s market.
For many years, we ate tomato bought from the supermarket here. Depressingly, they don’t have the tomato taste we grew up with. It’s red, but a kind of faded red, not a color to appeal to your appetite. It’s hard and tasted nothing but a faint sourness that remotely reminds you of the distanced memory of what a ripen, juicy tomato tasted like. A Chinese saying can be used to describe this experience: 味同嚼蜡 – taste like chewing on wax.

A result of Industrially-Grown Tomatoes.

To be able to endure the long distance shipments, the tomatoes are picked early in the fields, green and hard, not ripen yet. Once shipped to the destination, they are sprayed with ethylene, to turn tomatoes red. Ethylene is a chemical emitted naturally by the plants in the fields when they want to ripen their fruits. Now, we, the people, ripen them at our convenience, most likely in dull, lifeless industrial buildings, not at the field where the Sun is bright, the air is fresh and life is vibrant. Of course, to do that, we pay a price: compromised taste, big time!

When I started to find the local Farmer’s markets many years ago, I have been happy to be the loyal customer. I would say about 80% of my loyalty is a tribute to tomato. The locally grown tomatoes have much better taste than the ones you get from supermarket, period.
Then, we met Grainger County tomatoes.
The natural bright red color is tempting your appetite. Mixed it in your salad bowl, it adds such a vivid color to your greens that you feel like looking at a famous drawing, by nature. Bite into it, the juice bursts into your mouth in such a fast speed that it startles your tongue. Then, your tongue can’t stop happily chasing them around. At that moment, you taste the sweet, freshness of a natural tomato, like it supposes to be!
We treasure this Tennessee jewel by having it on our dinner table often in the summertime, wondering how I missed it for years!
One dish I make from it is this simple “Sugar Sprinkled Tomato”. My kids don’t care much about it, but both my husband and I love to have it. It was our childhood treat in the hot summer.

You cut the naturally ripen tomato into chunks, sprinkle granulated sugar on them. You let it sit for a while, so the sugar will bring the tomato juice out. When we were little kids in China, we didn’t have a fridge. To make this treat cold, our parents usually floated the bowl with tomato chunks into tap water for a while. Of course, this wouldn’t have the same effect of a fridge but we were very happy to enjoy it, chewing on the bright red, soft, juicy chunks first, drinking the sweet with a hint of tart juice next. That was our taste of Summer, straightly reaching down to our heart, a moment of joy.

Sometimes, happiness is this kind of trivial things that you remember forever.
This whole box of Grainger County tomatoes was really worth the round trip of almost 2 hours.

Sit at the dinner table #1 Fresh, Seasonal Vegetables and Roasted Chicken


I love summertime.

This is the time you have farmer’s market, the time you can have locally grown, seasonal vegetables on your dinner table.

Before I dive into the two words of “fresh” and “seasonal” that is charming to me, I would like to point out that turnip, and rosemary I have used to season the chicken are two things I never heard or saw growing up in China. There is no roasted chicken when I was in China either. They were new things to me when I came to the U.S. many years ago, and I have learned to love them in my home cooking.

I bought these two vegetables yesterday afternoon at the farmer’s market and cooked them last night. This way, I felt that I have appreciated the freshness of the vegetables and they truly make a difference in taste.
See the lively purple color of the turnip? They are bright, vividly shining with its deep, elegant color, not like the ones in the supermarket, dull, wrinkled because they have been shipped long distance, on the shelf for a while. And, look at the green beans, they are nicely plump, not too old to be tough, just ripen to be full and solid, both in terms of the pod and the beans inside. Most importantly, they are still tender. Late summer and early fall, it is the best time to enjoy green beans and turnip so they are on my dinner table often.

When I was little, there was no supermarket and refrigerator in China. For three years during China’s disastrous “Culture Revolution”, my parents were forced to relocate to a small college in Confucius’s hometown, Qufu (曲阜). There, my parents shopped our grocery in an open market held twice a week. Peasants from the villages around brought rice, fresh vegetables, tofu, eggs, live chickens to line up a dirt road just outside the college campus. People, including us, were poor, but we got to eat very fresh vegetables harvested in the morning, the peasants carried them to the open market with the morning dew and the mud still on. And they were always seasonal, you recognized that the season had changed right at the dinner table.

One incident I remembered was a suicidal chicken. It was a fat chicken my mother just bought from the open market. Before my dad had a chance to kill it, it jumped from our 3-story high apartment. The poor thing did not die from the jump but was killed later. When my mom was cleaning the chicken, she found the chicken’s liver was unusually big that caused her to worry. Around that time, hepatitis B was spreading across China. My mom was so concerned about the chicken might have this awful illness that she brought the chicken liver to the college clinic asking the doctors there to check and diagnose! Later, looking back, I think my mom was more concerned about if we should throw that chicken away or eat it. It was a luxury meal then.

Life has changed so much, so fast since then. Technologies do bring convenience into our daily life including cooking, but we also lost many precious things in the process. We eat the same vegetable year around, and they are produced and shipped from far away places. Many are harvested early to be easier to ship. Vegetables are no longer the same taste they used to be. People hardly have time to sit at the dinner table, we are always on the road, stuffing us with a quick fast food, rushing to reach another place……

In the U.S., there are a very limited variety of vegetables, day in and day out, you eat broccoli, onion, green pepper, carrots, and tomatoes again and again. With these limited choices, I was shocked one time that a young cashier looked at my spinach and asked me what kind of vegetable I was buying.

No wonder why the life expectancy in U. S. is low and is projected to be on par with Mexico by 2030. We are one of the richest countries in the world and have the most advanced medical care. Maybe we should re-think our food culture, eating habits. Maybe we should sit at our dinner table more.
The U.S. has so many great things to be proud of, but not in its food culture. Things have been changing towards healthy eating since I came here 20 some years ago. But it is still a long way to go.

Farmer’s market is a good start to eat more vegetables, fresh and seasonal. Give it a try, you would not regret.