I so admire the French—their ability to carry a dinner table argument all the way into next week; their taste for crimes of passion; even their penchant for unpredictable diplomacy. I especially admire their authority in matters of cuisine. So when, at a restaurant in Paris not long ago, I saw that Tomate was on the Dessert List, I reverently ordered one. It would be a deconstructed tomato, I guessed, put together again with a paste of thickened absinthe; or, lightly flayed, it would float in a Proustian tisane.
My husband favored me with a sigh suggesting that the family had long noted my derangement. He ordered Chocolat Mystérieux.
The desserts came.
His was a chocolate cake dense as fudge, topped with chocolate cream light as ljulhter, surmounted by curls of chocolate. More chocolate, liquid this time, swirled around this masterpiece like fanciful script. This is no fruitcake, the penmanship seemed to say.
Mine was a hot red sphere, alone and aloof.
It was not covered with raspberry sauce like Pêche Melba, not slathered with crème fraîche like a baked apple. It was not a fruitcake; it was not even a fruit. It was a vegetable, and I was a fool.
I glared at my vegetable, wondering whether, if I plunged a knife into the headwaiter, a French jury would let me off. Our own judiciary had once considered a case of fruits v. vegetables, I happened to know; in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court (Nix v. Hedden) held that a plant or plant part eaten during a main course was a vegetable and one eaten afterward was a fruit. But the tomato I was confronting, whatever nine old white men wanted to call it, belonged in a salad, preferably on someone else’s plate.
Still—surely it was stuffed with something. Maybe that sommelier in tails would glide in our direction and pour cognac on it and set it on fire, and inside its ashes I’d find a small charred blackbird or a chèvre. I smiled winsomely at the sommelier. He examined his fingernails.
I lifted my fork. My husband’s arm encircled the Mystérieux to protect it from an idle spurt. I lowered my fork. With a cautious forefinger I stroked the warm tomato—perhaps a fruit after all, I relented, if only because it carried the seeds of the next generation. Oh, sure, zucchini is fruit too. But there is something sluttish about that fecund squash; not even Parisians serve it up sugared as a pièce de résistance. The tall tomato plant has nobility, I observed aloud. And it’s a martyr, isn’t it, lashed to its stake under a hot sun. It is faithful, too, I murmured to the fast-disappearing Mystérieux; can’t you imagine a tomato plant falling in love, mating for life and worrying about the children; fretting about the language and establishing an academy that admits some words and turns down others; and refusing to buy British beef?
My husband didn’t answer; he was concentrating on his dessert. So I raised the fork again and pierced the plump spécialité. I took a bite. The flesh was slightly sweet. There was indeed a stuffing. It was citrusy, and at the same time nutty, and also gingery and minty, too—it was as various as Voltaire, as delicate as Dufy, as mysterious as the shadows of Montmartre. Mysterious. But not chocolate. The Mystérieux itself, I saw, was almost gone. "Égalité, Fraternité," I breathed, deftly switching plates with my all-suffering spouse. "Tomatoes always share; it’s part of their Belief System," I instructed as I gobbled up the last of his dessert; he could enjoy the rest of mine. "Liberté," I assured him.
He produced his familiar, suggestive sigh.