Eleven years ago, at the end of May, I updated my Facebook status: This summer, I’m going to be outside as much as possible. I’m going to read Infinite Jest. I’m going to write a poem every single day. I’m going to create, create, create.
No pressure, right? I tell you what—I still haven’t, and probably will never, read Infinite Jest, making the title its own sort of joke. And a poem a day? That’s just not how poems work for me, especially since I am not a poet.
Before kids, I was a high school English teacher who married a high school English teacher, making summers a glorious gift and a terrible pressure. Two months off after piles of grading and around-the-clock parent emails (things that never take a day off, never disappear when the end-of-the-day bell rings) was a relief, a balm. But I felt that so much concentrated time off should result in something: I should produce, have a project—write. Two months was enough to create a young adult novel about private school kids, an idea I’d always dangle in front of my classrooms of . . . private school kids, trying to scare them into thinking that I’d write about their teenage intrigues. I think they knew better, watching their work pile up on my desk, ungraded week after week.
Again and again, mid-August would arrive waving her Back to School flags and rest her judgmental gaze on me: what did you do with your entire summer?
Year after year—nothing. I spent it and had nothing to show for it. Not a page, not a line. Empty, unaccomplished.
Always, the cherry tomatoes will keep going, long after my daughter tires of the backyard snack, they keep coming by the bowlful, productive when I’m not.
A couple of years ago, my friend Ashley (a much wiser and more accomplished writer than I ever hope to be) listened to me bemoan another summer gone with no writing. She waved that thought away like a no-see-um and told me with a firm factual voice, “Oh, I never get anything done in the summer. That’s not what that season is for anyway. I write in the winter when there’s nothing else to do.” With that, she gave me the keys to this season, set me free to walk out of my own jail of Getting Something Done.
I don’t do any creative work in the summer, nothing really of substance or to a deadline. I have a husband and two kids! Friends to hang out with and cook for! I have a garden! I have too much time on my hands! Whatever the excuse that procrastination sings to me at the moment, I know this: summer is for soaking, for enjoying. I will produce nothing; I’ll waste it. These weeks ahead aren’t for plans—they’re made to enjoy.
I’m a mother before I’m a writer. Maybe more that, I’m a mother while I’m a writer. Either way, I have two mouths to feed. The kitchen has long been a refuge for me, a creative space where I can nurture myself and those I love in one fluid motion. When I’m not writing, I’m cooking. When the world is confusing and hurtful and all sharp edges, I know I can go into the kitchen and make sense of things.
Our summer garden is both marvel and mystery: we’ll grow 38 eggplant when eight would’ve been fine, watch all summer for even one single watermelon to sprout with nothing but a scraggly vine no matter what we try, or harvest five solitary okra pods. After weeks of waiting for the Cherokee Purples to ripen, damn if those squirrels don’t take one bite and leave the rest as a taunt. Don’t get me started on the squash vine borer.
Always, the cherry tomatoes will keep going, long after my daughter tires of the backyard snack, they keep coming by the bowlful, productive when I’m not. A glut.
In a chlorine haze, swimsuit damp on my body and dinner looming, I pour a bowlful of the red fruits into a roasting dish, douse them in olive oil—more than a few glugs, a drowning—poke a garlic clove or two in almost as an afterthought and garnish the entire thing with some scraggly tendrils of thyme from the herb plot outside the backdoor. I push the pan into a 300 degree oven (any hotter and who could stand it), and walk off to get a shower or at least peel off the swimsuit.
Forty minutes later, the aroma draws me back to the kitchen, a peek in the oven reveals the tomatoes have fallen into themselves all velvety and rich, the garlic golden brown and sweet. Tossed with pasta and some grilled veggies, it is a revelation. I trance out as I lift the ruby fruits out of the oil, watching them, inhaling them, dreaming. The fragrant oil we use over the next week, drizzled over salads and crusty bread and scrambled eggs. I guess you’d call it tomato confit, but without thought or recipe or snooty culinary terminology. It was laziness with a payoff. It was what summer is for my creative self: soaking in the goldenness, becoming with not a lot of effort. Enjoyment.
This is summer cooking, the ingredients at their peak, they need nothing to taste and look and be their best. All we have to do is . . . enjoy. Take in, be present. Luxuriate.
Let me eat my fill of these lazy days—these days with my loved ones, these hours spent exploring and hiking and learning and reading and dozing and piddling around. What do I have to show for you in late August? My hands might be empty; my soul’s gonna brim right over.
I’ll write in the winter, when the world shoves me inside to sit at my desk. Full once more, I’ll pour out on the page. But for right now, it’s a feasting season. Set the table—there’s a place here for you to enjoy too.
What to Do with All the Cherry Tomatoes, a sort-of recipe
2 cups (or more) whole cherry tomatoes (don’t even think of slicing them, that’s not the point of this recipe anyway)
1/2 cup olive oil, use more as needed
2 sprigs of herbs, like thyme or rosemary (optional)
Pinch of salt
4 cloves of garlic peeled (this is a great opportunity for me to give you permission to buy a container of pre peeled garlic)
Set the oven to 300. Pour tomatoes and garlic in a baking dish so that they cover the bottom. Pour enough oil in until they are partly submerged, about halfway to 3/4 of the way. Sprinkle with salt and add herbs, if using.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the tomato skins are bursting and garlic is golden brown. Use tomatoes as a sauce with pasta or grits, sop up with bread, or whatever you’d like. The oil will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.