Time and Tomatoes

Today is a day for slow-roasting tomatoes and daydreaming about the new year.

It’s sort of a meaningless mile marker, cynics have observed. The calendar is a human construct. Years don’t have character. 2020 bears us no malice; nothing cosmic or karmic shifts on January 1st, 2021.

But we construct things like calendars because they’re helpful to us, to our brains that need to process and order the universe. How else would humanity know to tell the stars where they should be, or what day we’re free to schedule that root canal? We erect temporal mile markers because we need them to order our lives. Not just root canals and summer vacations: They’re also psychologically helpful. They’re talismanic.

I’ll start exercising on Monday. I’ll give up sugar for Lent. I’ll read fifty-two books this year, one a week. Do Mondays or Lent or the fifty-two weeks of the year have special powers? No. But also they do, sort of. They have the magic we invest them with: The magic of order, the magic of optimism.

So we make resolutions. We jokingly (or not) make promises and bargains with 2021. We spit on 2020 and ward ourselves against its evil eye on our last passage through its narrowing days. It’s superstition. It’s optimism. It’s human.

I sit at the kitchen table with the dog hanging his chin hopefully on the table’s edge (you still don’t like coffee, pupper, and I got nothin’ else) and print the names of the months in block capitals in my planner. I tag each one with a goal, a deadline, a mile marker. With optimism. The kitchen warms gradually to the slow oven, fills even more gradually with the sharp-sweet-pungent scent of roasting tomatoes and thyme.

Slow-roasting tomatoes is optimism, too. It’s late December in Massachusetts. The Roma tomatoes I selected at the grocery store this morning were sad specimens, pallid and waxy, rock-hard or bruised. Nevertheless, I counted seven of the most promising into a bag.

At home, the oven warming to 250°, I cored and halved the sad tomatoes, bathed them in olive oil and salt, spread them cut sides up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. I learned the formula years ago from Molly Wizenberg’s lovely culinary memoir A Homemade Life; I rely on it every winter. Molly uses coriander, and sometimes I do, too. It brings out the sweet-tart character of the tomatoes. Today I wanted thyme, so there went sprigs of fresh thyme left from the Christmas roast. Shallots too, I decided, halved and likewise tossed in olive oil and salt, strewn among the tomatoes. Into the low oven they go, and there they stay. Four hours, six hours, eight hours: They’ll come out when the tomatoes are wizened and shrunk on themselves, edges curled in and scalloped like pie crusts, centers densely red and gleaming with juice. They will taste, possibly to their own surprise, like tomatoes — jammy and intense, something between the ripe heart of summer and a scarlet marinara. I will eat them stuffed in pita sandwiches, or chopped into morning eggs, or just on crusty bread with cheese: the waning year’s late, unpromising tomatoes rendered vibrant by time, a low oven, and optimism.

(And salt and olive oil.)

Happy New Year.

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