For someone as law-abiding as I am, it’s unreasonable to fear the police. And yet, for the first several years that we lived next to Mario, I avoided him whenever I heard him come into his yard. Mario, a retired San Francisco police officer, might be in his eighties, but he still has a commanding presence. With his ramrod stiff posture and his stern countenance, I didn’t really feel like getting to know the neighbor on the other side of our fence. It didn’t help that my naps in the hammock would get occasionally interrupted by the sound of Mario yelling at his children, who are all in their fifties.
But then my kids were born, and I saw a soft side of Mario that I would not have previously believed. He started to hand all manner of presents for the kids over the fence– dolls, books, toys– whenever we happened to be in our yards at the same time. “Hello, girls!” he’ll say, in a gentle, almost high-pitched voice. The girls run, like dogs learning tricks, over to the fence at the sound of his voice. Then he’ll either throw the surprise over the fence (and I’ll fail to catch them both because of my usual klutziness and my still present fear of him), or place them in a plastic bag which he’ll hoist over the fence on a broomstick. The kids, needless to say, never had fear of Mario. In fact, they shout out his name whenever they go into the yard, in case he might be within earshot, awaiting their summons.
I relaxed a bit after realizing that Mario was a softie. Then I started to get presents, too. And I daresay that mine were even better than the kids’: vine-ripened tomatoes. Not only are these tomatoes delicious, as all homegrown tomatoes are, but they are even more so because I can observe from my back window the labor that goes into them. Because of the bizarre weather we have in San Francisco, it’s a challenge to grow vegetables, because we don’t have as much heat or the sun that most other places have in the summer. But Mario, in all his wisdom, erects a temporary greenhouse of sorts for his tomato plants each fall and winter, made of a complex network of ropes covered by Tyvek, the insulating housewrap you might have noticed on buildings under construction. It’s not the prettiest sight, but the tomatoes which emerge each summer from the Tyvek are among the best I’ve had. With tomatoes this sweet, you can taste sunshine.
So when I’m in the yard, and hear rustling over the fence now, I don’t scurry away like I used to. Instead, I wait to hear someone say, “Hi, honey,” and get ready to catch my loot.
After many interactions over the fence, we eventually met face to face, and I got to know Mario a little better. I learned that he is from Malta, the tiny Mediterranean island nation off the coast of Italy.
Many Maltese emigrants settled in San Francisco in the early 20th century, including Mario’s family. If you look carefully you’ll notice Maltese crosses adorning not just the local fire station, but the facades of houses and former churches on our streets. In honor of Mario’s roots, I’d like to introduce a classic Maltese dish which relies upon the vine-ripened tomatoes of summer. Malta’s language and cuisine reflects its waves of migration and former colonizers, with inflections of Sicily, Moorish Spain, Northern Africa, France and Britain. A favorite light dish features Maltese bread, a sourdough with a great crust and a soft interior. This is rubbed with the cut side of a perfectly ripe summer tomato to be eaten on its own, or as a base for a rustic sandwich. What a perfect San Francisco meal– here in the land of sourdough, and one of the main Maltese settlements in this country, I get vine-ripened, sun-kissed tomatoes lovingly handed over the fence by my Maltese neighbor.
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Maltese Bread and Tomato Sandwich
(Hobz biz-zejt u t-tadam)
Maltese cuisine reflects its long history of influence from many cultures. This meal combines the Spanish pan con tomate, with fillings reminiscent of the French salade Nicoise. It was traditionally served as a simple but hearty lunch for workers, and could be thought of as a Mediterranean version of the British Ploughman’s lunch.
1 loaf of crusty sourdough bread or ciabatta
2 large very ripe tomatoes (any variety except Roma)
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1 can Italian tuna or anchovies in olive oil
1/2 cup cooked cannelini or other white beans
your favorite olives, sliced
thinly sliced red onion
fresh mint and basil leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Accompaniments: pickled vegetables of your choosing
1. Slice bread into 4 sections, then slice each section in half.
2. Toast sliced bread lightly.
3. Cut tomato into halves.
4. Rub each slice of bread with the sliced tomato half.
5. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle on salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste. Stop here if desired.
If you want to dress it up further,
6. Serve on a plate alongside an assortment of the remaining ingredients, or layer into a sandwich.
7. Enjoy with a bottle of chianti or other red wine.
And for dessert, some Maltese proverbs. Mario couldn’t have put it better.
Unless the baby cries, he or she will not be put to the mother’s breast.
Build your reputation and go to sleep.
Who I see you with is who I see you as.
Cut the tail of a donkey and it’s still a donkey.
If you want it to be it never will be.
I’ll be there if I’m not dead.
A friend in the market is better than your money in the hope chest.
He who waits will sooner or later be happy.
Always hold onto the words of the elderly to show respect and to gain from their wisdom.
Proverbs and Malta photo from “Maltese Americans.”
All other text and photos ©2010 Linda Shiue.
Published on Salon.com August 2, 2010.