As I remember, it was “Eggs Baked in Tomato Cups.” It sounds a bit fey, and I’m sure that was part of the appeal. It was the first recipe I ever made from the pages of Gourmet magazine. I was all of 7 years old, and as my grandmother Millie told the story (and retold it), I woke up at the crack of dawn one morning, quietly shuffled past my sleeping cousin, and went downstairs to the kitchen where the issue lay on top of Millie’s tiny kitchen secretary. The evening before, I had picked four tomatoes. I reached into the refrigerator for four eggs, a stick of butter, and the cheese usually reserved for the brown bag lunches my grandfather carried daily to the paper mill. With the biscuit cutter, I cut four rounds from sliced, toasted white bread. I dropped an egg on the floor, and Hexa, my grandparent’s ancient dachshund, made fast work of cleaning it up. A splinter of sun was the only source of natural light, and I suppose rather than risk ruining my grand surprise by turning on the overhead, I opted to make breakfast in the semi-dark.
Never mind that I had never made breakfast beyond emptying cereal into a bowl or sliding a piece of bread into the toaster. Never mind that I had been forbidden to light the gas oven on my own. My resolve was strengthened by the culinary partnership I had formed with my grandmother. Hadn’t we made dozens of pies, baked crusty batards of bread, put up gallons of jams, conserves, and sauces? Stretched strudel dough across the old kitchen table carved from ebony walnut of the Black Forest? Certainly I could handle scooping out the pulp of four tomatoes and replacing them with raw eggs. She must have wondered why I had her read that recipe so many times the night before. And then, when she was ready to move on to her knitting, why I climbed onto my grandfather’s lap in his cranberry-hued leather chair for another round.
Millie and I had been doing this for a while. Apart from my complete set of Winnie the Pooh books, pages from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Gourmet magazine’s articles were my favorite bedtime stories. I loved hearing the authoritative voice of technique as Millie read the recipes out loud, looking at the stunning photographs of exotic cities and food, and peering into the windows of restaurants and sophisticated parties around the world. It was aspirational. Which is why in the narrow light of the early morning a 7-year-old girl was carefully breaking one egg at a time into hollowed-out tomatoes, arranging them in a buttered dish, sprinkling them with salt, pepper, and a little cheese and baking them for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven that she had lit herself. All to surprise her grandparents—who also appreciated the power of food—with a gourmet breakfast in bed.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue.