Almost every front cover of food and lifestyle magazines these days boasts the magnificent versatility of toast. Toast with ricotta, thinly sliced radishes, and a few snips of dill. Toast with cream cheese, a slice of tomato that covers the bread completely, save for a few pudges of white at the corners, and sprinkles of fresh pepper and chives. Toast slathered with crunchy peanut butter and speckled with coconut flakes.
The possibilities are endless, each pairing scrumptious, but I’m going to give you the best recipe out there: two pieces of bread, toasted, then split into craggy bite-size pieces, chopped tomatoes, and cucumbers, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A few turns of your salt and pepper mills over all of it and you’re done.
It’s what my mom made me for lunch when I was growing up.
That’s not true. I never would’ve eaten this in grade school. When I write “growing up,” I mean the teenage years: when the growing feels slower and murkier and bigger risks are waiting to be taken. It’s the time when the glorious PBJ is admittedly still delightful, but somehow feels elementary. The time when a more complicated, robust taste moves in.
I don’t know for sure, but I believe my mom started making me toast with tomatoes and cucumbers the summer I worked at the Maze Branch Library. I was sixteen. We lived right next door, and I could see the inside of just about the entire building from my bedroom window upstairs. Some of the lights stayed on all night, so a little glow shone into my bedroom for 18 years until I left for college.
That summer I shelved books. You literary types are thinking, “Oh good gracious, isn’t that just delightful? To be surrounded by stories all day? My, my, my; what a treat.” But I was not a reader, so it was not delightful and it was not a treat. It was dreadfully boring, but I needed a summer job so I could drive a black 1992 Dodge Shadow convertible to the shores of Lake Michigan and play beach volleyball with my friends while the Chicago skyline’s reflection glittered off the water. I worked at the library so I could put gas in the car. The librarians let me listen to my Walkman while I shelved books. I made a mix tape of Janet Jackson, Depeche Mode, Bell Biv Devoe, and the Cure. That helped me pass the time. Only once was I told to turn my headphones down and stop wiggling my hips to the music.
So, the toast. The thing about my mom is she always knows the perfect thing to eat at any time of day. She throws ingredients together like it’s no big deal. Like, of course you sauté onions, carrots, celery, olive oil and a dash of hot pepper flakes together and that’s gonna be your go-to base for just about everything you make—soups, pasta sauces, cassoulets—from now until you die, amen. So I would walk in the front door, moody and ready to say something snarky about the literature I had to spend time putting away, and smell bread toasting. My mom would be standing at the kitchen counter slicing cucumbers and tomatoes.
“Want some lunch?” she would ask.
The first floor of my house was divided into thirds: living room, dining room, and kitchen. I think you call that a railroad house or something. My mom hated the divisions. She wanted to stand at the kitchen and look into the dining room, through the living room, and out the windows to the 800 block of Gunderson.
“Can we take these walls down?” She asked my dad one day, and my dad immediately got anxious. Once my mom has an idea in her head, it needs to get done yesterday. If she asked my dad about knocking down walls, it’s because she already knew where the sledgehammer was, and was planning demolition for high noon.
“Grace,” my dad said frantically, “those walls hold up the second floor.”
My mom looked at him blankly, as though she was working out how essential the second floor was.
A few weeks later, my parents hired a guy who knocked holes in our kitchen and dining room walls, moved the oven, and put in a counter so my mom could mix, chop, stir, and sift while looking out any window or at any room she pleased.
“What are you making?” I asked, kicking off my flip-flops.
“A little concoction,” she said, which is code for, “I’m not sure, but it’ll be good.”
I tossed my Walkman on the couch in the living room, and sat down at the dining room table.
From here, I can’t tell you how the conversation between my mom and me went. She could’ve asked me how work was, and I would’ve said fine. Maybe she asked what I would do with the rest of my afternoon, and I probably would’ve said I was headed to the pool with friends. It could be she asked me to run an errand for her, and I would’ve gladly done it if it meant driving the convertible. Whatever happened between us, I know this: She made a simple, delicious meal, split it in half, and sat down across the table from me to eat.
If it were early in the week, like Monday, remnants of the Sunday Chicago Tribune would’ve been left over and she and I would’ve leafed through it while we ate. As I mentioned, I didn’t read much, but two things I snatched from the paper were the funnies and the Chicago Tribune Magazine. My mom liked the Arts section, and the crossword puzzle, though she liked the New York Times crossword better. “Much more clever.”
“You like nonfiction that reads like a story,” my mom pointed out once, while I was dragging my finger under a line of words in the magazine.
“Huh?” I said and put my foot on the chair I was sitting on, rested my elbow on my knee, and leaned my head on my hand.
I never for one second thought my parents wished I was something or someone else, but if the topic of reading ever came up, things got tense. My parents are intelligent, articulate individuals who not only love to read, but believe that struggling with a well-crafted story helps you see the world differently. I didn’t get that from reading. Words came to me slowly. I had to sit with them for a long time to understand half of what they meant. Picking up a book felt like a burden to me; reading was affirmation of a suspicion I had about myself for a long time: I was stupid.
“The piece you’re reading is nonfiction,” my mom said and nodded toward the magazine, “but it’s not just reporting of the facts, like the news. It reads like fiction, don’t you think?”
A knot loosened in my stomach when my mom pointed this out. Discussions that revolved around reading had to do with skills I was assigned to practice, and a regimen of strategies to master. Nobody ever talked to me about the story.
“Now that I think about it, those are the books you’ve always read: Dear Mr. Henshaw, The Diary of Anne Frank. You like finding the truth in stories.”
I picked my fork up and stabbed a piece of bread with it, then popped it in my mouth. The balsamic had seeped its way into the grain and its tangy sting made my mouth water. It was delicious. I hated soggy bread, and was suspicious as I watched my mom douse it with the dressing, but somehow the bread kept its crunch, while gaining the flavors of the oil and vinegar. Nothing lost, just an addition to enhance what was already there.
“I wonder if you’d like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote,” my mom said.
“You know, Dill?”
“From To Kill a Mockingbird?” I asked. I hadn’t read the book, but it was one of my favorite movies since the day my mom brought it home from the library for me, though I turned my nose at it because the film was in black and white. “For crying out loud, Callie,” she said, “give it a chance.”
“Dill’s a real person?” I asked.
“He’s based on one,” my mom said.
“Is Scout real?”
“That’s Harper Lee.”
“The lady who wrote the book,” my mom said and sank her fork into bread, cucumber, and tomato, then brought it to her mouth. “Truman Capote and Harper Lee were friends.”
We ate the rest of our lunch, talking here and there. The windows were open and the wind rustled the pages of the newspaper. The L rushed towards the city and the cicadas hummed. “This is delicious, mom,” I said. “Thank you.”
I found In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird in the library later that week. I slid both from their spots on the shelves, opened up to a random page and read a paragraph of each. It’s what teachers told me to do when they tried to help me pick out books for SSR or DEAR or whatever the acronym du jour it was. My stomach tightened again and heat flushed my cheeks. I shoved the books back in their places, put my headphones on, and continued shelving the returned stories.
It wouldn’t be until I became an English teacher—one of life’s great jokes—that I would read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. My first class of eighth graders in the city of Chicago and I would struggle and fall in love with the story together.
It takes time to figure these things out; to find more possibilities than what you thought you had to begin with. Sometimes versatility feels scary before you realize you’re about to partake in something tremendous, and you can handle it. But that’s the thing about toast; it doesn’t need a lot to shine. Just a few key ingredients, some patience and willingness to use what you have, and the potential is endless.
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