Science & Medicine

Fried Green Tomatoes, Wacky Blood and the Bialy

Many of us are doing much more cooking and baking these days. Makes sense. Locked in with a fridge, stove, and plenty of time why not perform a little magic and produce a new taste sensation that might even be good for us.

For the upcoming MPNforum Food & Recipe Pandemic Issue, here’s an updated version of Fried Green Tomatoes and My Wacky Blood.

The MPN world has been blessed or plagued with drugs, used singly and in combination, that may relieve symptoms and  improve quality of life, and possibly produce partial or complete remission. Or make things worse.

The Silver Bullet Syndrome — the hope that a magic pill will eventually cure us — is deeply embedded in our imagination.  And, in fact, it might some day exist.

This is a true story that illustrates how our reliance on using drugs too often, too far in advance of any need to relieve symptoms, might rob us of enjoying the life we have right now.

Green tomatoes and my wacky blood.

With my first myeloproliferative neoplasm diagnosis — essential thrombocythemia —  I had several thoughts.  I could beat this, I could be cured, I could die of it.  All I knew for sure is my neoplasia was on the way to becoming something else, probably a lot worse rather than better.

Looking back over nearly two decades of MPN life, I realize how mistaken I was.  If by cure I meant getting control of symptoms and disease progression, that might happen with some of the new drug combos.  Or maybe it has already has happened with no drugs at all. When my ET nudged its way into myelofibrosis nine years ago I was given a greatly reduced life span prognosis and the prospect of rapidly expanding, more severe symptoms.  A little of that happened, most didn’t. And I’m still around to be writing this.

To highlight the wackiness of all this blood roulette, my brief foray into meds – anagrelide – resulted in rotten headaches and devastating cardiac effects. As a result I’ve been firmly Watch and Wait and mostly drug free for 20 years.  A baby aspirin, pop a synthroid for hypothyroidism…and that’s it.  There’s no explaining my relative remission without a comprehensive autopsy and histological examination which would be a little premature and pretty damned uncomfortable at this point.

Wacky blood? Maybe but there may be another way to look at this, to look at our MPNs in general. And for that let me turn to events of last week.

I first started heavily pruning my tomato plants last week,   While pruning, my attention was riveted on a low-hung monster tomato, bright red among the green fruit.  This single tomato weighed one pound, eight ounces.  If it were entered in a County Fair contest it would have to move up to compete in the pumpkin class.

Since it looked like three tomatoes smushed into one, I first believed it was simply an environmental freak, some epigenetic pressure that fused these separate organisms into one.  But then I saw two others, including one hanging high on the vine. So it’s likely a genetic mutation, something that could be transmitted across generations.

My tomato seed originally came from an organic heirloom tomato plant I bought at a farmer’s market a couple of years ago. This year’s crop is the result of a third generation of seed carefully harvested and stored. The possibility of propagating a new giant tomato that spontaneously mutated on the vine in my West Asheville corner garden absorbed my imagination.

Two nights ago, I was musing about my Nobel Prize acceptance speech for the Gregor Mendel cash prize when the doorbell rang.

A small, older woman was at the door, plain and apologetic,

“Sorry to disturb you” she said  with a tight smile, “but would it be possible for me to have one or two of your beautiful green tomatoes.  I love fried green tomatoes.” This request,coming from an obviously respectable and humble woman who had to come down the walk and up the porch in the evening took me by surprise.  I agreed of course and walked her down to the garden to help her while urging her not to tell her friends.

When she left I looked over the miniature field of crowded thick-fruited tomato vines hung with green globes, some reddening in the twilight..  In pursuit of my giant mutant red tomato I had been oblivious to the fresh, bursting beauty of these green tomatoes.  They weren’t simply ripening into red fruit that would ultimately rot away on the vine if not harvested, they were complete in themselves and ready to be enjoyed.

So fried green tomatoes it would be.

Having produced the fried green tomato, I can attest the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.  The parts are basic: sliced green tomato, oil (some prefer bacon grease), flour, bread crumbs, corn meal, baking powder, egg, milk and salt.  Many locals omit everything but the flour. As a transplanted New Yorker I felt free to substitute matzoh meal for bread crumbs. Both sweet and tart, the tomato slice lights up its covering of batter. It takes hot pepper sauce beautifully.

My myelofibrosis is a  green tomato. It’s not a mutant red tomato. It may become something that will become something else that would have to be  dealt with in its own time. But  right now, It’s its own thing.   It can be dressed up in spiced batter and trotted out to face the world. Or left hanging on the vine.

Our blood cancer can hurt us in many ways.  But there’s no point in waiting around for it to become something else while we ignore what we have right before our eyes right now. So, dig in… and would you pass the hot sauce please.

Bonus: And when the pandemic seems endlessly sad, discouraging, isolating what’s need is COMFORT FOOD. And one of my personal greats is the Bialy.   My family comes from Bialystok, in the region bordering Russia and Poland. Bialystok is known for many things but but perhaps mostly its Bialystok kuchen, or, the Bialy. Crisp on the outside with an onion/poppy seed center, soft on the inside it’s popular in parts of the world but virtually unknown in the South, where I live.   Given the pandemic gift of time and Chef Google, I dug into the history and mystique of the humble bialy — a distant cousin to both the bagel and kaiser roll but vastly different than either — downloaded recipes and experimented. Finally  it came hot and smoking out of my oven,  a child of the 2020 Pandemic,  ready for slicing, toasting and insertion of lox, onion,  cream cheese… and a fried green tomato.


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