Eating Like an Alabamian in the Desert Southwest

By Hayley Wells


Tempe, Arizona

One evening this summer in Arizona, I was feeling fat. So, I ate cucumbers and tomatoes for dinner while wearing pants with a tight waistband, so as not to over-indulge even on the vegetables. This, I recognize, is absurd. On a hot night in Arizona, one cannot limit her craving for cool fresh vegetables with a little salt, pepper, and vinegar. I have been in Arizona for just over a year, after a seven-year stretch and a childhood before that in Alabama. This is my second July in the desert. The AC can’t keep up with the heat.

This so-called salad was delicious and made the heat more tolerable. It reminded me of home, even if these vegetables did not come from my dad’s Alabama garden, but instead from a Tempe supermarket. It was 113 degrees outside. I made cold sesame noodles with scallions to eat the next day, when it would be 118 degrees. I wondered if these temperatures were actually possible on the green Earth where I grew up.

I also realize it is absurd to call sliced vegetables a meal. A meal should have at least three courses, even if one course is only a digestif. I am not young, but I am immature, living with a man I love for the first time. We don’t always feel or eat like adults. Sometimes vegetables count as a meal.

Tomatoes and cucumbers, ideally ones from my dad’s garden, have long been a staple of my summertime household. My mom would taste everything she cooked for dinner as she made it, taking bites here and there. Then, while we ate the meal she made, she would serve herself a plate of cold sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Sometimes, she would eat this at the table. More often, she ate while standing behind the kitchen peninsula, either asking us about our day or telling us to get out of her kitchen because we were making her nervous.

This dish was and is her delicacy. It was never diet food. Iceberg lettuce, mayonnaise, or Worcestershire sauce accompanied it. Always salt and pepper. After a trip to southern France and Italy, good olive oil and balsamic. I can bring up in my mind an image of the milky remains of this meal, pooled in a plate on the kitchen counter, spotted with pepper. She only sometimes minded when I grazed a bite.

My brother, who now lives across the street from my parents in Alabama, texted me a picture of a plate. Sliced tomatoes swimming in their own juice, dotted with mayonnaise and speckled with pepper. I’ve become our mother, he said. We both have.

Many Southerners will tout the tomato sandwich in summertime. Sliced ripe tomato, ample mayonnaise, and salt and pepper on cheap white bread which, in my mind, it is acceptable to toast. Deviations from this recipe must never be tolerated, because it is delicious. It’s hackneyed for a reason — we all grew up eating it. But as I have moved to my first home with my family of cohabitator and dog, I have come to appreciate my mother’s approach. I prefer a plate of tomatoes and cucumbers, ice cold and dressed well, eaten standing in the kitchen while either asking my sweetheart about his day or shooing him away to savor my meal, of sorts, alone.  

I mentioned being fat. I am. (And happy, and healthy.) It is because my cohabitator started baking bread, and I love real butter and mayonnaise desperately. (This, too, I inherited from my mother.) When you have fresh bread in your house, it screams to be toasted and topped, and now I have fresh bread all the time. I have reached resistance fatigue; I have given in. I must use the bread.

Nadine Levy Redzepi has a recipe in her cookbook, Downtime: Deliciousness at Home, for butter-fried bread with tomatoes. (It is a simple, wonderful recipe. The book is beautiful. I confess I do not own it. I found this recipe using Amazon’s "Look Inside" feature. I promise I will buy the book soon.) You fry bread in butter, dice up tomatoes, season them, drain them for a while, and eat it all together. Like I said, simple. The drained tomatoes produce a good bit of juice, which people now call "tomato water." As promised by Nadine, this juice is incredibly flavorful and has a million uses. I know it well from my mother’s dinner plate. When collected properly and not from dinner leftovers, it makes an excellent cocktail.

Nadine is Danish, and therefore, she has likely not been influenced by the southern woman’s practice of eating tomatoes alone in her kitchen. Yet a part of her cookbook is dedicated to embracing fat. Her Instagram profile features a recipe where you smear leftover fat from short ribs on toast and then top it with olive oil and bake it. This woman and I share values.

This butter-fried bread recipe kicked off a craze of topping fried fresh bread with everything. One day, I fried bread at the stove and set out a week’s worth of leftovers on the island. I served my cohabitator butter-fried bread topped with avocado, arugula, tomatoes, cucumbers, smashed Anasazi beans, mozzarella, hummus, pickled onions, and pizza sauce. With a side of watermelon, it was a feast.

What food is on hand becomes a feast, and I can see the south’s food traditions emerging in my Arizona kitchen. The summer is suffocating, and yet we eat well and for comfort. My appetite grows.