LETTER FROM NEW YORK
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LETTER FROM NEW YORK – 5
March 13, 2009
Technically, this is a letter from Miami Beach. When the New York winter gets to us, we repair to an apartment on the beach, bought by my parents thirty years ago. My father has passed on and my mother is beyond her travel days, but the apartment maintains its allure for the generations that follow. Miami Beach has changed a lot since we started coming here. In those days, South Beach was filled with decrepit hotels where elderly Jews rocked on porches staring at the swaying palm trees with not much interest or delight. Today, of course, South Beach is a tourist destination, offering miles of beautifully restored Art Deco buildings, as well as brand new, brand-name luxury resorts complete with private art collections, fabulous pools for the fabulously hip and tented cabanas on the pristine beach.
When my family first started coming to Miami, I was just out of college and happy to go anywhere my parents were willing to pay for. We stayed in one of the many kosher hotels that dotted the boardwalk interspersed with an occasional grand hotel long past its prime. We kept on coming year after year, adding spouses, children, and eventually that apartment, as our families grew. Our evenings were spent at the Fountainebleau Hotel, which in the fifties had lodged the rich and famous, from movie stars to heads of state. The lobby was shabby, the atmosphere dreary, but it had a dilapidated underground mall with tacky clothing stores and a games arcade that could keep the kids occupied for as many hours as they had quarters to put in the slots. Since then, the Fountainebleau has undergone a five-year, billion dollar renovation. The games are gone, replaced by gourmet restaurants where a meal for two can cost the equivalent of a car payment. And while the clothing may still be tacky, the price tags attest to the fact that this is not the same Miami Beach.
When my husband and I are in Miami Beach, we spend a part of each day walking along the boardwalk that stretches for several miles along the edge of the beach. Usually, I’m mesmerized by the shifting colors of the ocean as the sun pops in and out of frothy clouds. But this time, I was pre-occupied, trying to think of a topic for my next letter from New York. “Write about the death of the tomato,” my husband said. I knew exactly what he meant.
The night before, we had had dinner at one of the startlingly expensive restaurants in the aforementioned Fountainebleau Hotel. The décor was stylish and the food attractive. I thoroughly enjoyed by grilled octopus appetizer, but when I looked at my husband’s face, I could see he was perturbed by his salad. As described, the dish had seemed a tantalizing combination of tomatoes, fennel and beets. As experienced, even a delectable dressing could not disguise the fact that the bright red mound of tomatoes central to the salad was utterly without taste.
This was not the first time we’d encountered tomatoes that were decidedly more attractive on the plate than in the mouth. For years, we’d been complaining that tomatoes in New York, even from the finest organic produce stores, were deteriorating in flavor and texture. It brought to mind one of my husband’s first jobs directing an industrial film for an international paper and packing company. With camera in tow, he had attended a corporate unveiling of a new product meant to enhance the sale and distribution of tomatoes. Realizing that growers could not stamp their name on delicate tomato skin the way Sunkist or Tropicana identified their oranges, the company had developed an ink jet printer which could spray any logo without inflicting the slightest bruise. At the first official demonstration of the product, the company brought along a basketful of luscious bright red, ripe tomatoes. With cameras rolling, they put their new machine through its paces, moving the tomatoes along on a conveyor belt to receive their product tattoo. Sure enough, the tomatoes survived the process intact, with nary a blemish.
“Very nice,” said the grower, “But what’s that?” he asked, indicating a tomato.
“Uh… a tomato?” said the baffled executive in charge.
“No,” said the grower, “This is a tomato.” He proffered a rock-hard green globe which would have barely felt the blow of an anvil. “That’s what we ship,” he added. The company packed up its gear and went home. The film was never completed. But our understanding of what constituted a tomato in the American grocery store was clarified. It was a crop picked long before ready, crammed tightly into boxes for hundreds or even thousands of miles of travel, then artificially ripened to that perfect complexion favored by the consumer. It’s as far away from the real thing as you can get without actually renaming the product.
All thoughts (at least in this column) lead to Positano. Last summer, we rented a small apartment for a short stay in Positano. The apartment itself was Spartan, but the owners were a hospitable hotel-owning family of several generations who made us feel welcome. Each day, on the terrace next to ours, we would see the grandfather, a quiet man with a kindly, weathered face, watering a small garden. One day about half way through our visit, he appeared at our door, bearing an armful of tomatoes, freshly picked and still on the vine. They were spotted and imperfect, with narrow brown grooves spreading from the stem. But when we cut them open, the firm skin gave way to a burst of seeds and juice that smelled of rich earth and sea air, and tasted like ambrosia of the gods. This was a tomato, the way only nature can make it, irreplaceable and impossible to duplicate.
I am not a Luddite by any means. I appreciate progress and my life is greatly eased by improved technology. When I first started writing on “General Hospital” in 1981, I typed all my shows on an IBM Selectric using triplicate carbon copies which I then had delivered to the studio by messenger. Changes were made by whiting out errors or in dire cases, cutting passages from one document and pasting them over another. Today, in Miami Beach, I took my laptop to the pool. When I finished my show, I connected to the available wireless and sent it simultaneously to the studio in Brooklyn and an array of writers and producers situated from one coast to the other. And I like Miami Beach the way it is today much better than the South Beach of my youth. It’s fun to see glamorous models and occasional movie stars mingle with well-heeled tourists in stylish hotels. Even the beaches, after a nationwide coastal reclamation project, sport a wider swath of clean white sand than they used to. Still, it is undeniable that some things cannot be improved by advanced technology and lavish spending. One of them is the tomato.