My youngest was the only one of my children who was a picky eater. He'd eat whatever I cooked, as well as his father's cooking, and his grandparents' cooking, and eventually, his siblings' cooking. Until he was an adult, though, he was very very picky about what he ate away from home. He would not eat tomatoes in any form, raw vegetables, meat, most cooked vegetables (fries and corn on the cob were the exceptions). His default always safe food was grilled cheese. It's very hard to mess up grilled cheese.
One day we were out shopping and running errands, and the 2 little ones got hungry. They wanted grilled cheese sandwiches from this little hole-in-the-wall deli we'd found.
It was not named, but there was a neon light in the window that said "cheese". When we first found it, I thought it was some sort of artisan cheese store, but it was a deli, selling grilled sandwiches, deli sandwiches, pickles, potato salad, and soup of the day. Soup of the day was always tomato soup, but the owner said it sounded classier to say "soup of the day".
The kids fell in love with the grilled cheese sandwiches here, and now and then, I'd take them in for a treat.
The "cheese" sign still flashed in the window, so we went in.
There were red Chinese paper lanterns strung across the ceiling, a golden buddha with incense burning at the cash register, and the tables were covered with white tablecloths. The man behind the register was Asian, dressed in a high collared white jacket frogged closed down the front. The menu looked the same, but that was the only thing that looked familiar.
My youngest didn't seem to notice (he's pretty oblivious about a lot of things - then and now, just wait until I tell you about the day I repainted his room, or the motorcycle incident...), and plopped himself down in "his" chair and said he'd take a grilled cheese sandwich.
The man at the register beamed at us - he appeared to be the only one there - and took our orders, after assuring us many times that the menu was accurate, he was the new owner, and we were his first customers.
So, son got grilled cheese, daughter got turkey sandwich, and I asked for the tomato soup.
It took a while. There was much shouting in back, and clattering of pans, and slamming of doors.
Beaming widely, with jacket hastily reclosed and wearing a chef's hat that tilted over on ear, the man carried out a tray, setting before each of us what he thought we'd ordered.
Caught that "thought", did you?
"Tomato soup" was a clear chicken broth with 2 paper thin slices of tomato floating on top, stewing in the steam, and a sprinkle of sliced scallions. Artistic.
The turkey sandwich was a slice of white bread topped with what looked like half a turkey breast. There were carved radishes and carrots, a curl of scallion, a mound of fried broccoli, and two boats carved from a daikon or maybe a turnip. One boat was filled with a vinegary sauce and the other with a brownish mustard-looking sauce.
But it was the grilled cheese sandwich that amazed us the most.
The bread was toasted, as in toaster toasted, not grilled toasted. Layered between the slices of toast was: mayonnaise (I think), a cold slice of American cheese, sliced cucumbers, three leaves of lettuce, a pile of julienned fries, sliced tomatoes, pickles, red onions. This was topped by another slice of cold American cheese, cut in half triangularly, and each half was skewered with a plastic cocktail sword.
I just knew my son would have a melt-down. This was not a grilled cheese sandwich, not by any stretch of the imagination. It was barely a sandwich.
The man, whom we had determined through conversation was the new owner, beamed and nodded and waited for us to sample the food.
The broth was rich and flavorful, the tomatoes tender from stewing in it. It was a good soup. Not tomato soup, but a good soup.
My daughter used a knife and fork to eat her sandwich - she at least had experience with the German open-faced sandwiches, so was only momentarily daunted by the size of the chunk of turkey.
Both of us said "Mmmmm!" and assured the proud new owner that the food was delicious.
But my son....
He stared at the sandwich, then pulled one of the swords out, waved it about for a minute, much to the enjoyment of the new owner. Then he stabbed the second half of the sandwich and picked up the swordless half.
My daughter and I held our breaths.
He took a bite.
Then he said, "Mmmmmm - tomatoes!" and ate the entire sandwich.
The new owner was thrilled that we liked his food, and when we left, gave us each a small round almond flavored cookie.
And to this day - nearly 30 years later, whenever we are confronted by an unexpected dish, no matter how good or bad or what is in it, we take a bite, then catch each other's eye and go "Mmmmmm - tomatoes!"