First of all, what’s a tomato knife?
It’s a small serrated knife specifically made to cut tomatoes.
Why the title of my blog?
Before I dive too far into my story, there are two things you must know: I grew up vegetarian in Santa Fe; Sébastien, my husband, is from Bordeaux. In other words, as a kid I ate marinated tofu, pinto beans and veggie chili. Sébastien grew up on red wine and meat.
There’s one more thing you must know. In France, according to my observations, the baguette is sacred – as is the bread knife.
When I was growing up, my family ate a lot of tortillas. Given their presence in New Mexico, we could always do without proper bread. We children would tear apart the soft, flat tortillas, our fingers often covered in some form of chili sauce or salsa, and dip them into bowls of warm posole. Or, we’d wrap them around Fakin’ Bacon and alfalfa sprouts, sprinkle them with cheddar cheese, spread them with honey and peanut butter – you name it. The advantage of tortillas: there was no knife and no cutting involved.
As an unspoken rule, Sébastien’s family always had a baguette at the table. And next to the baguette was the bread knife.
The story starts when Sébastien and I first moved in together. Our apartment, a 25-square-meter (which means small) one-bedroom, sat on the top floor of a small building in the Parisian neighborhood la Butte-aux-Cailles. It had a slanted roof and looked directly out over rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles (a quaint little street paved in stone and sporting a string of lively restaurants and bars). You could even see the light from the Eiffel Tower as it made its spotlight rounds in the evening. It was perfect.
We’d been living together for only about two or three days, the average length I can go without eating a tomato.
Ooops, backup. You must also know: Sébastien does not like tomatoes.
All of our things were finally unpacked and we were about to enjoy our first home-made dinner(salade de chèvre chaud) under the setting Parisian skyline. By this point, I had already taken note of Sébastien’s bread knife, but had not yet used it. Its friendly teeth smiled at me, reminding me of my mother’s “bread” knife back at home. Growing up, this kitchen utensil was one of my favorites. Thanks to its teeth, it cut tomatoes so well. I am sure our family bread knife cut through more tomatoes than actual bread – proof that my family is not French.
I thought nothing of it as I reached for the innocent knife laying on the countertop and began slicing through a plump, ripe tomato. “Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” (What are you doing?) I hear from behind me. I turn around and see a very unfamiliar look of distress on Sébastien’s face. I look down and see a small puddle of red, seedy tomato juice. “Don’t worry. I’ll clean that up,” I respond cheerfully, completely unaware of the cultural blunder I’ve just made.
On one of my early trips to visit Sébastien’s parents, I discovered where the loyalty to the bread knife came from – well, at least where it most directly came from. I honestly believe the fidelity is embedded in the greater whole of French culture.
My first moment of confusion in my in-laws’ house came when someone handed me a tomato and a bread knife at the same time. They were simply trying to include me in the family cooking activities and must have assumed I would understand. Since the first incident at our apartment, I had come to realize that Sébastien thought a bread knife should only be used for bread. Did his parents think similarly? I was in a foreign kitchen, in a foreign country – and had heard cliché stories of how French women were very possessive of their cuisines. Should I really use this to cut the tomato? I asked myself. The prospect of cutting through the tomato with the serrated knife thrilled me. I could tell it would be a smooth, seamless, perfect cut. “Avec ça?” (With this?) I asked with enthusiasm, ready to jump in. The look on Sébastien’s face the first time I cut into a tomato with his bread knife, was only outdone by the look on both of his parents’ faces when the new daughter-in-law threatened to cut into a tomato with theirs!
That’s how I decided, if I was going to survive in France (and integrate into French culture), I needed to start using the correct knife for the correct piece of food. I needed a tomato knife. With my first visit to the cooking utensil store E. Dehillerin, integration (and a whole new appreciation for cooking) began.