You Say Tomato
Cilan hummed a soothing little ditty to himself as he diced the carrots on the table in front of him. Even while they were on the go, he was always prepared to cook a lavish meal, but today would be even better than usual. They'd passed a Farmer's Market on the way out of the last town they'd stopped in and he'd been able to get some fresh fruit and vegetables for that day's lunch and dinner. Usually he'd just make due with whatever they could scrounge up. That wasn't all bad, really. Iris had a good eye for berries and he enjoyed the challenge of being able to compose a feast out of few ingredients but… well, it made a difference to have resources.
He turned to smile at Ash who was leaning on the camp table and looking speculatively at the ingredients lined up for lunch. It was nice to see him hanging around while he cooked instead of going off with Iris (who was at this moment leading the other Pokemon on an expedition to locate and climb the tallest tree in the forest). It wasn't that he really minded that much if they left him to prepare the meal, but it made him feel a little like he was the "dad" of the group and the "children" were going off to play and, for goodness sakes, he wasn't that much older than them.
Ash took a whiff of the air and grinned. "It smells so good already," he announced, his stomach gurgling slightly. "I can't wait!"
Cilan adjusted the burner under the big stew pot and tossed some carrot slices in. "I've only just started boiling the water," he said, raising an eyebrow. "It can't smell that good."
"I know," Ash said. "But I can imagine how good it'll be, so my nose is getting a head start."
Cilan laughed and went back to cutting vegetables.
"So… what kind of soup is it gonna be?" Ash asked, tapping a celery stalk against the table in barely suppressed impatience.
"Vegetable," Cilan explained. "Seasoned with my special collection of spices," he added, sounding proud.
"…Oh," Ash said, sounding less impressed and hopeful than before. He seemed to regain some of his vigor, though, as he added, "So… we'll be having, like, cheeseburgers or something with the soup, right?"
Cilan opened his mouth to ask if Ash saw a portable meat freezer anywhere nearby. Cilan was ridiculously prepared for feasting on the go, but not that prepared. Instead he just decided to say, "No, but I'm making my famous fruit salad."
"Oh, well, that'll be good too," Ash said, casting his eyes down to the celery and looking at it as though he wished it could be persuaded to start a new life as a cheeseburger.
Cilan watched Ash's disappointment quietly for a moment, while being careful not to accidentally take a finger off as he sliced up the celery. Only the cartilage crunch of the vegetable snapping into pieces could be heard before Cilan ventured to say: "So, you're not the biggest fan of fruit and vegetables, are you?"
"Oh, it's not that," Ash said, holding up both hands. "Anyway, I like fruit. It's…" He stopped for a moment, scratching his head. "…What did Iris call it?"
"Nature's candy," Cilan said with a smile. He'd liked the sound of that phrase the minute he'd heard it.
"Right, and, like, I'm sure whatever you make will be good," Ash added, establishing his alibi up front. After all, Cilan's cooking hadn't steered them wrong yet. "But… I don't know," he continued, adjusting his hat, "vegetables are just…"
"Ash, you sound like someone whose main experience with vegetables is from a can!" Cilan proclaimed, holding up his knife to make a point in a gesture that might've worried some. "There's really no comparison between the wilted, preservative-drowned fare that gets packaged up and left on some shelf in a grocery store and the fresh, toothsome delights that come right off the vine or out of the ground!" He lifted the hand that wasn't holding the knife to his forehead, and rested it there in a mournful gesture. "Many a child has slid their spinach from one side of the plate to another without daring to take a bite, or hidden it in their napkin or tried to surreptitiously feed it to a Lillipup under the table! But what they don't know is that they're being fed a shallow substitute that can do nothing to equal the bounty that nature can truly produce!" he declared, finishing his statement with a starry look in his eye.
Ash didn't appear particularly moved by this. "Well, sure, I guess," he said with a shrug. "I just think… you know, I'd rather have fruits like apples, bananas or berries than veggies like carrots, celery or tomatoes."
Cilan smoothed the wrinkles out of his vest, aware that he'd gotten somewhat carried away and trying to take refuge in technical minutiae. "Actually, a tomato is a fruit."
"What?" Ash asked, eyes widening as he turned to look at the collection of tomatoes on the table, waiting to be cut up. "No way," he said. "But… they're used in salads!"
"Fruits can be used in salads too," Cilan said, gesturing to the basket of grapes and apples to Ash's right. "Didn't I tell you we were having fruit salad too?"
"But… I don't know," Ash said, unsure how to make his point as he reached for a tomato and examined it. "I just can't think of them as fruit…"
"That's because you're used to thinking of fruit as being very sweet," Cilan supplied for him, "but that's not really what defines what is and what isn't a fruit. Tomatoes come from a flowering plant, ergo, they're fruits."
"Wow," Ash said, tossing the tomato lightly in the air and catching it, "I guess I never thought of it that way." He wondered with some horror if that would technically make ketchup a kind of jam.
"Actually," Cilan said, holding up a lecturing index finger, "you can see that the tomato is a fruit by considering one of its nicknames. It's called 'the love apple.'"
"Love apple?" Ash repeated as though the first word was somewhat foreign to him. "Why's it called that?"
"That's a good question, Ash," Cilan answered. "Thankfully, in addition to being a Pokemon connoisseur, I'm also an etymological connoisseur."
"To start off, you should know that the tomato, like its rhyming cousin the potato, is part of the same family that includes deadly nightshade," Cilan explained, pronouncing the name of the dreaded plant with a great deal too much drama.
Ash dropped the tomato suddenly. "You're saying they're poisonous?" he asked, hurriedly trying to wipe away any tomato trace from his hands off on his pants.
"No," Cilan said, waving the claim off. "Well, yes," he corrected himself, after some thought, "but not very," he added quickly. He decided not to get into the subject of toxic alkaloids in case it put the poor boy off of French fries for life. "Anyway, so because of that relation, some people used to think that tomatoes were just as deadly as nightshade is."
"…I don't see why that'd make 'em call them love apples," Ash said doubtfully. Admittedly he didn't have too much experience when it came to love, but he was pretty sure it didn't involve getting poisoned to death. …At least, he certainly hoped it didn't.
"Oh, I don't know," Cilan said thoughtfully, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "Poisons and love often have a strange connection in people's minds. I mean, perhaps you've heard of one of deadly nightshades other names: Belladonna? That means 'beautiful woman.'"
"So…" Ash began, trying to wade through this, "they're trying to say that… girls are poisonous?"
"No, no," Cilan said, rubbing his temple. "Well… possibly," he allowed. "But anyway, the reason tomatoes are called love apples has more to do with another member of the nightshade family: the mandrake."
Cilan took out a ladle and stirred the contents of the pot which he realized he'd been somewhat ignoring for tomato talk. "The mandrake plant has a long history and was used in all kinds of supposedly magical rites. One of the things it was said to be used in was love potions. The fact that the berries of a mandrake resemble tomatoes surely made people make the connection between the two."
"They thought tomatoes could make people fall in love? Really?" Ash asked, looking at the tomato before him as though it contained more power than he could comprehend.
"Well…" Cilan said, tasting his stew, "fall in love and… associated interactions." He decided to save an explanation of the sordid history of aphrodisiacs for another day, sure that it would go way over Ash's head. "Perhaps that goes some way to explain why spaghetti is such a quintessentially romantic meal."
Cilan turned back to the main table and began quartering the tomatoes quietly. Now that he thought about it, perhaps spaghetti might be a reasonable choice for dinner that evening.
"Then I don't think I want any," Ash said, pushing the tomato purposefully away from himself.
Cilan chuckled and skewered a quarter of tomato on a fork. "Oh come, Ash," he said, leaning in toward the trainer, "is falling in love really such a bad thing?"
"Well…" Ash trailed off, looking up at Cilan. It was a funny thing, Cilan's talk about the wonders of fresh food. It made him think, maybe everything he'd understood about love from movies or television was just… what had Cilan called it? A shallow substitute. Perhaps love, in real life and with the right person, was fresh and delightful and not at all something to turn one's nose up at. If Cilan was right about food, would he be right about love too? "I guess not," he finished, still somewhat uncertain.
"Good," Cilan said, holding out the tomato on the end of the fork to Ash meaningfully.
Ash carefully took it off the tines and took a bite. The more impactful flavor of the lovingly grown fruit made him wonder about the factory-farm fare he'd grown up on his whole life. How could he have gone this long not knowing what he was missing?
"In that case," Cilan went on, studying Ash's face as he tried the fruit, "I'll have to make sure your portion has extra tomatoes."
"Extra?" Ash repeated, nearly choking on the bite he'd taken. "Why do I get extra?"
"Because, Ash," Cilan said, straightening back up, "on the subject of love, you need all the help you can get."