As a kid, I didn’t like tomatoes. I found them not only tasteless but mushy or sometimes, hard and inedible. My mother, a good Southern woman, loved them. She was particularly fond of Tomato Sandwiches, which is a predominant lunch staple in the South. Food writer, John Kessler, wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that for ten years, while he lived in Georgia, he had never had one. One response to his posting on Facebook said, “he should renounce his citizenship”. (I don’t know whether that was to the Confederates or to the Yanks….the writer didn’t qualify.) But my mother, she loved them. It’s a simple process of two pieces of white bread, mayonaise and big beefsteak tomatoes. The kind that when you bite into them, dribble down your chin, almost like a greasy cheeseburger but without the cholesterol and animal fat. Kessler also references Chef Bill Smith, from his blog “Seasoned in the South” who states “that a riot ensued for the sandwiches”.
Me? Although, I didn’t like them growing up, I began to love them while I lived in New York City and tomatoes in general. I couldn’t have been more than eighteen and was walking leisurely on a hot summer afternoon through Union Square’s Farmers Market. I still remember that there was a young, blondish woman barking out, “Try our heirlooms!!!” In her hand were striated wedges of red tomatoes, flecks of green in some, a couple with purple lines but all were poked with wooden toothpicks, offering the shoppers a chance to try her wares. I was game. I had only moved to the city in September the following year to attend school and I was trying everything. Dance clubs, drinking and decadence. (The things that made NYC in the 80s.) I thought I should give the tomato another try. So I bit into the pretty girl’s heirloom, which I had never had. It was life-changing. Juicy. Sweetly acidic. Warm from the sun. I bought two big red ones, which I couldn’t afford (I was a starving student, after all) a loaf of white bread, baked fresh for the market that day and swung by a bodega to pick-up some Hellman’s (throwing in a little urbanity with that down-home goodness.) I now eat them every year, sometimes daily.
My darling friend, Lulu, and I recently made the perfect tomato sandwich. We went to her backyard garden and pulled a couple of Persimmons and Consoluto Genoveses, two types of the nine varieties she was growing. (She also has grapes, pomegranates, zucchini, arugula, Meyer lemons, cantaloupes, watermelons, blackberries, raspberries, etc. It’s practically a farm.) Still warm from the Southern California sun, we sliced them with her mandoline, not too thick but enough to pile them on the whole grain toasted nut bread. (Truthfully, it should be made with Wonder Bread or Sara Lee.) On one piece of bread, we used some of her freshly made basil pesto with chunks of garlic, on the other, smeared it with Hellman’s (I prefer Hellman’s, less sugary and Duke’s isn’t available in California). With glasses of sweet tea, we sat at her outdoor table, shaded by a big orange umbrella and ate the deliciousness. It was a little bit of crunch from the toasted whole grain bread, the sweetness and balance of the acidic tomatoes, the creaminess of the mayo, with the bite of the garlic and basil. Perfection on a hot day.
The authentic Southern sandwich is made with only two pieces of mushy white bread, mayo and tomato slices but if you want to get “all gourmet-like” and mess with the original by all means. It like eating a just a little bit of the summer sun.