But those were smooth preparations in which the tomato was cooked down—its flavor altered and made more full-bodied—and blended into a silky tomato essence. The tomato itself posed a textural hurdle.
I dreaded selecting a sandwich from a lunch buffet, only to find the slimy seeds and jelly of a tomato contaminating the filling. Or biting into a warm taco and experiencing the incongruent temperature of a cold—or, even less pleasant, lukewarm—tomato chunk.
On those rare occasions when I decided to give tomatoes a try, spearing a slice in my salad, I was inevitably rewarded with a watery mouthful that didn't taste like much of anything. When a tomato ripens fully on the vine, it acquires a complex mix of sugar and acid compounds that burst with flavor. But most commercial tomatoes these days are picked when they're green, packed in a warehouse, and gassed with ethylene, which stimulates the fruits to redden even though they aren't yet ripe. The process makes tomatoes easier to transport and gives them that appealing fire-engine red color. The end product, however, is bland and, for a tomato-phobe, often not worth the effort.
So for years I ate around tomatoes. Chunky pasta sauce? Slide the tomato chunks to one side and proceed. Salsa? Dip the chip vertically so it's just coated with liquid without scooping up any of the tomato mixture. Bruschetta? Take advantage of the fact that when you bite into the crunchy bread, loose bits of tomato—oops!—fall off harmlessly onto the plate.
My tomato strategies worked reasonably well, until I ran into the most common type of situation in which I'm forced to reckon fully with a food I do not want to eat: social pressure. A few years ago, I met several of my former high school teachers for lunch at a bistro in Ann Arbor. Not feeling well, but not wanting to draw attention to the fact, I decided to order a simple salad. I glanced quickly at the menu and ordered the Caprese, assuming it was a salad of greens with tomatoes that I would eat around as usual.
I was therefore slightly horrified when the server instead set before me a plate covered with large slices of beefsteak tomatoes. The fact that they were accompanied by slabs of buffalo mozzarella and generous splashes of balsamic vinegar did little to ease my dismay. I could clearly see tomato goo. But I could hardly send the dish back—I had ordered it, even if I hadn't read the description closely. I decided that if I could create bites that were two parts cheese to one part tomato, I just might be able to chew my way through an acceptable portion of the meal.
And I did. I even kind of enjoyed the sweetness of the tomatoes played off against the tanginess of the vinegar. By the end of the lunch, more than half the salad was gone and I was reconsidering my tomato antipathy. In baby steps, I continued to add tomatoes to my repertoire. The next time we ordered the high-end pizza that replaces tomato sauce with chunks of fresh tomato, I left a few on instead of picking them off. I stopped substituting tomato puree when a recipe called for crushed tomatoes, and I found that the texture no longer bothered me.
Then, one day last summer, I stood in a friend's kitchen while she finished preparing dinner. She had purchased some cherry tomatoes at a local farmers market that afternoon and set out a bowl of them for snacking—a bite-sized rainbow of fruity yellows, oranges, and reds. I popped one in my mouth and stopped. It didn't taste like any tomato I'd ever had. This was fresh, a crisp bite with a small punch of sweetness inside.