Someone asked me the other day what dish my mom cooked the best when I was growing up.
I remembered how we would head to the garden on the north side of our house in South Jersey. On this particular day I had been reading one of the many Bobbsey Twins books that I always borrowed from the library. My mission was to finish all of the books in this series so I could move on to The Hardy Boys. Even though I was interrupting my reading time, I loved the garden.
“There is a really red one over there in the bottom corner,” my mom said. I headed over to find, sniff and then eat that tomato like most people eat an apple. After I washed it in the slightly metal tasting water from the warm rubber hose, and after I sniffed the warm grassy sweetness, I bit into it and juice squirted down my shirt. I always started our garden time with tomato eating.
My mom and I would kneel in the dirt and it was never hot. We weeded when the sun was on the other side of the house. Our knees would get muddy as we reached and plucked. We pinched the string beans from the vines that wrapped around our chain link fence. Our puppy, Chelsea, paced a track along that fence so that she could bark at neighbors and cars and other dogs… and basically everything. She barked at everything. She came to lick my mom every so often while we worked. A polite lick on her cheek. That dog tolerated the rest of us but she lived for my mom. My mom was cool but we all knew the feeling was mutual.
The pepper and tomato plants needed a lot of weeding. We did not want anything to steal nutrients from our precious food. In the summer, in my South Jersey home, tomatoes and peppers were for breakfast and lunch and dinner. At lunch time, on most days, I either had a tomato sandwich or a pepper stuffed with tuna salad. I liked a good tomato sandwich. White bread. Toasted. Mayo. Salt and Pepper. Jersey. Tomato. Magical.
What my mom made best though was a green pepper stuffed with tuna salad. I would cut the top off and clean the pepper. Ribs and seeds removed. My mom would remind me to salt the inside of the pepper. Lightly. Then she made tuna. All white meat Bumble Bee. Mayo and onions. Salt and pepper. The tuna cans were stinky in the hot kitchen but we never threw them away before we ate. The stuffed peppers looked too good.
As soon as she scooped the tuna into the peppers, we would take them and our ice tea, the kind made from the powder mix, and we would go sit at our wooden picnic table under the giant maple out back. I would talk about softball and books. My two loves at the time. For a long time. Music would be blasting from the living room speakers on the other side of the house but if Stevie Nicks was singing then my mom was singing. And, if Meatloaf was blaring, then we were both singing. And eating.
Tuna in a green pepper. It is a simple dish that takes careful attention to each simple step. Tuna, shredded down with a fork from chunks to small pieces. Onions, cut in a pretty fine chop, just a little bigger than the tuna pieces. Mayo, in a big spoonful to start and then it should look creamy while still looking like tuna. Salt and Pepper. Then, more mixing than seemed necessary but the trick was to get everything covered with everything.
I make tuna in a pepper for Luke now. We do not have a garden and if I sing he gets wildly embarrassed. But, I know he will remember it. Careful attention and more mixing than seems necessary sounds like the definition of love to me.
Maybe someday, he will tell someone that tuna in a green pepper is what his mom cooked best when he was growing up. I hope he gets to tell me that too. I hope I told my mom. She was cool but I am pretty sure she knew.