There are a handful of things that I do when I’m feeling really, really bad. I take a walk to the Brooklyn waterfront and climb the flimsy fence to sit on a rock and look at Manhattan across the water. I go to the farmers market to squeeze things, or the bookstore to smell things. I find the saddest plant in the hardware store and bring it home to my sunny kitchen to re-pot it, even though my windowsills are full. I make something my mom used to make me when I was a kid, like milky breakfast tea and cheese-toast, or I scrub my apartment until my knuckles hurt.
A lot of people (Beyonce included) like to say that all they want in life is to be happy, and that’s a good, honest desire, but just wanting it isn’t always enough. The thing that no one likes to say, is that sometimes you have to work at being happy.
When none of my usual happiness tricks work, I turn to the books I know best for comfort—the ones whose bindings are burst and pages are frayed. Often they’re serious, grown-up books—Slouching Towards Bethlehem or “The Fact of a Doorframe,” but the other day it was Harriet the Spy that pulled me out of my pity-hole.
No one knows a crap day like eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch—her spiral into isolation and despair is epic. First, she loses her beloved nanny, Golly, then she loses her spy notebook, which leads to her losing her best friends, which causes her parents to take away the spy notebook again, which nearly causes her to lose her entire identity. I read this book so many times between second and fifth grade that, to this day, I can recite whole passages from memory. When I picked it up the other day, though, I hadn’t read it in years, and I was surprised by how much I still liked it.
In the past year, I’ve had to re-read a lot of my childhood favorites as research for Voracious (tough life), and to be honest, not many of them stood the test of time. Little Women was dull, Blubber was an anxiety nightmare, Where the Red Fern Grows didn’t even come close to making me cry. Even as a twenty-eight year old, though, Harriet the Spy still spoke to me. The observations that Harriet jots down in her spy notebook about strangers in New York City are brutal and hysterically funny, maybe even more so now that I am adult living in this weird place. While on a bus to Far Rockaway with Golly, Harriet observes:
MAN WITH ROLLED WHITE SOCKS, FAT LEGS. WOMAN WITH ONE CROSSED-EYE AND A LONG NOSE. HORRIBLE LOOKING LITTLE BOY AND A FAT BLONDE MOTHER WHO KEEPS WIPING HIS NOSE OFF. FUNNYLADY LOOKS LIKE A TEACHER AND IS READING. I DON’T THINK I’D LIKE TO LIVE WHERE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE LIVE OR DO THE THINGS THEY DO. I BET THAT LITTLE BOY IS SAD AND CRIES A LOT. I BET THAT LADY WITH THE CROSS-EYE LOOKS IN THE MIRROR AND JUST FEELS TERRIBLE.
This is gold.
Because Harriet is hyper-aware of the world around her, she isn’t exactly a carefree, light-hearted child. She is adventurous and brave, smart, cruel, insightful—but she is certainly not the happy-go-lucky heroine of many children’s books. One of the things that keeps Harriet steady is routine, specifically food routines. “Every day at threeforty she had cake and milk. Harriet loved doing everything every day in the same way.” Harriet has also eaten a tomato sandwich every single day for the past five years—she likes it the way she likes it: white bread, mayo, tomatoes. This exasperates Harriet’s mother, who pleads with her “to try a ham sandwich, or egg salad, or peanut-butter” to no avail. Because of this book, I ate my fair share of tomato and mayo sandwiches throughout elementary school (and also took to wearing headbands, striped thermals, and orange pants when the movie came out in 1996).
After re-reading the book the other day, I decided to make myself a tomato sandwich for old-time’s sake, and guess what? It was still delicious. Good, ugly summer tomatoes are finally appearing in the markets, which makes all the difference in the world for a sandwich where the tomato is the main event rather than a “lettuce and tomato” afterthought. As a grown up, I wanted a little bit more, so I added some lemony pea shoots for acidity and bite, and fried capers for a briny crunch. Harriet most definitely would not approve, but I think you will.
Harriet the Spy Tomato Sandwiches
Makes 3 Sandwhiches
3 oz capers, drained, rinsed, and patted dry
canola oil (enough to fill a small skillet up to ½ inch)
8 oz peashoots
2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
6 slices bread
3 ripe tomatoes
Black pepper to taste
First, fry your capers. Make sure your capers are thoroughly rinsed, you want to lessen the aggressive saltiness. Also be sure to pat them dry to keep the hot oil from spitting when the moisture hits it.
Fill a small saucepan with ½ inch of oil and heat it until it reaches 350F.
Lower your capers into the oil with a slotted spoon and stand back—the oil will spit no matter how dry your capers are.
Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the capers are golden brown.
Remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel to drain.
Toss your pea shoots in lemon juice and set aside.
Spread mayonnaise on both sides of your bread.
Slice the tomatoes and divide them between the three bottom slices of bread.
Pile the lemony peashoots and fried capers on top of the tomatoes, season with fresh black pepper to taste (it shouldn’t need salt because of the capers). Top with remaining bread slices and enjoy.