If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Today is the hottest day in history,” I would have a nickel. Yep, today is predicted to be the hottest day in Seattle’s recorded history. This sounds pretty hot. But really, for those who live in other places, 101˚ F is uncomfortable, but still do-able. For the inhabitants of this temperate city, however, it’s hard to think of anything else today. Most Seattleites do not own air conditioners, because the weather does not generally require it. At this moment there are many new air conditioner owners in Seattle now. I know this because the entire city is sold out of air conditioning units. There is a reason I know this, of course. You guessed it. Feeling crafty this morning, I showed up with Rosalie at Sears, anyway. New deliveries happen all the time, right? We walked in and asked a customer service rep in Tools how to get to the appliance department, and he replied in a bored and automatic voice, “Second floor on the right.”
“You’ve been getting this question a lot this morning?” I asked. He nodded, even more bored. Nobody was buying tools, for some reason.
You know those long, sad lines at the airport when several flights are cancelled, the security check is understaffed, and the airport is about to shut down because of some weather calamity? This is what the scene was like on the second floor at Sears, except instead of luggage, giant boxes perched next to impatient and slightly manic-looking people as they stood in a terrifically unmoving line with one person at the register.
As I had hoped, a new truckful of air conditioners had just started unloading. A guy with a hand truck emerged from the swinging doors with another few boxes, and people grabbed at the boxes impulsively, not even looking at what kind of units were inside. “Is that a 1500 or 1000?” someone asked. I had no idea of what he was asking the hand truck guy, but it was clear that people were attempting to purchase the largest units they could get their hands on. A couple of people rushed around like frantic spiders in a sink, trying to get their hands on a box.
I stood there for a second, stunned, trying to figure out if these people had ordered them ahead of time or not. Was I supposed to wait in one of these lines, or did I need to muscle through with my heavy kid in one arm and somehow claim an enormous box with the free hand? One lone woman called from a corner, “There’s a small one over here.” People ignored her. Rosalie and I came over and looked at it. It was a unit made to cool one room, such as, say, a bedroom. This is all we had needed, anyway. Why else have a kiddie pool?
When we were walking away from the scene, I heard a guy call out, “That’s all we’ve got.” A voice on the intercom suggested pointedly, "All available employees please come to the second floor to assist people with air conditioners to their cars.” That cracked me up. Usually you hear general requests like "Second cashier, please, " not the more specific, "Holy crap, help me with the crazy people and their air conditioners! There's only one cashier! Why are you not already up here??!?" As we were exiting the store with our box perched in a shopping cart, a friendly, sweating man was just approaching the door, and asked, “Are there any more left up there?” Sadly, it was likely that the swarms had already swept them all up.
If you happen to live in Seattle and are as unprepared for history-changing as I am, I think the hand truck guy said more units are coming in this afternoon.
If you can’t get your hands on an air conditioner (and even if you can), I’ve got another cure for the historically-significant-heat blues: gazpacho. When we were living in Spain in the summer of 2006, I first tasted Gazpacho Andaluz on a day probably hotter than today. It left an indelible mark on my psyche and palate. I was moved to write about it, so to quote myself from back then:
Gazpacho Andaluz, the kind made with fresh tomatoes, seems to cool the body several degrees after the first spoonful. When the ingredients are right, you can taste sunshine and rainshowers in it. I’ve been reading articles about gazpacho every day since I had it in Salobrena last week. They served it blended smooth and ice-cold, with a separate saucer mounded with diced tomatoes, sweet onions, green peppers, and cucumbers. This way I could add whatever combination I wished to my soup. Naturally I dumped the whole contents into the bowl and a few bites later felt like I’d fallen into a swimming pool of refreshment. I kind of stopped talking.
Several days and many bowls later I’ve read that gazpacho was originally a peasants’ dish and also one that Roman legions ate while traveling throughout the empire. It didn’t originally contain tomatoes, since that ingredient came later to Spain and Europe. The key components of the ancient mixture were stale bread, olive oil, salt, garlic, and vinegar. There are so many types of this cold soup, and so many versions of its history that it’s hard to keep track. It has a possibly Arab-based etymology meaning “soaked bread” or “fragments,” but even that is debated. In school I teach the sixth graders about the concept of cultural diffusion. One day maybe I’ll show up to class with vats of soup.
Another type of gazpacho, ajo blanco, is made with the above key ingredients, but rather than the tomato/pepper/onion/cucumber-type medley, it’s made with crushed almonds and fresh grapes or melon! Totally intriguing. As I experiment with good gazpacho recipes, maybe I’ll branch out to ajo blanco.
Since writing about it that summer, I have put together a recipe that represents my favorite version of gazpacho, the kind of Gazpacho Andaluz I first tasted.
If you are not growing tomatoes this year, you can use the “seconds” tomatoes at the farmers’ market—the kind that are on their last legs and need to be used immediately. They’re perfect because they are cheap, ugly and intensely tomato-y.
You can add a little extra bread if you want a thicker, more sustaining cold soup, or you can minimize the bread a bit for a lighter, more refreshing treat that you drink from a glass. It's great both ways. In heat like this, floating an ice cube in the soup is more than a novelty—it’s a necessity to maintain that refreshing coldness that will cool down your body and spirit like a fresh wind.
For the soup:
- 3 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled* and chopped coarsely (about 6 cups)
- 1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
- 1 small garlic clove or ½ large garlic clove
- 1 cup chopped onion (do not overdo onion—it can overpower)
- ½ of a bell pepper (either green or red; green tastes just wonderful, although red adds a great color)
- 2 T Sherry vinegar (or Balsamic will work in a pinch)
- 1 slice of white bread, such as a baguette or other crusty artisan loaf, torn into chunks (should be about 1 ¼ cup after torn), soaked in about ½ cup cold water. Stale bread is fine.
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste—having enough salt is important
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- In a blender, combine all the vegetables and garlic and purée until smooth.
- Add the vinegar, the bread with soaking water, and the salt, and puree until fully incorporated and smooth.
- Add the olive oil at the end. The additions of the bread and oil will probably lighten the color of your gazpacho.
- Chill in the refrigerator about an hour or more until ready to serve.
- In each glass or bowl, drizzle with olive oil and/or a touch of vinegar. Serve with garnish (below), if desired, and an ice cube, if the day is hot—or if you cannot wait for the chill time to start eating it!
*I usually peel tomatoes by blanching a few at a time in boiling water, then plunging them in ice water to keep from cooking the tomato. The skins slip off effortlessly. If they don’t, try blanching for a few seconds longer on the next ones.
For the garnish:
Optional but wonderful—you serve these on the side and give each person a chance to add some as desired.
- 1 to 2 tomatoes, diced
- ½ to 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
- 1 green or red pepper (usually I saw green pepper when in Andalucia), seeded and diced
- ½ onion, diced
Arrange all four ingredients on a plate and serve with bowls or glasses of soup. Alternatively, you can offer a small individual saucer for each person.