Late last night after a dinner of pasta and garden tomatoes a strange thought occurred. Not once in the dozen years I have lived in the South have I eaten a tomato sandwich. In fact, if you define such sandwich as sliced summer tomatoes, white bread and mayo, I had never — not once — eaten one. That seemed an amusing Facebook update, so up it went.
Despite the advanced hour of the posting, I quickly racked up more than 40 responses. “What’s wrong with you?” asked the aghast. “It’s a pre-requisite for citizenship,” they huffed.
The recipes that started pouring in were, of course, simple and repetitive: Tomatoes (just picked), white bread (the “no nutritional value” kind), mayo (has to be Duke’s, say most), salt and pepper (enough to turn the tomato black, according to one fellow).
One person suggested an advanced version that involved cream cheese, ground dill and Splenda, but she was quickly booed off the stage.
“No whole wheat bread, no dill, no lemon, no cream cheese. It has to be white bread, white mayo, white salt, black pepper and tomatoes — warm from the sun if you can get them,” someone responded huffily.
As a food writer, I was quite familiar with this basic sandwich. In fact, I can’t mention a summer tomato in a story without someone writing an email to the effect of, “Mmm, mmm, ‘mater sammich!” and directing me to make one and stand over the sink to catch the juices.
Yet I had never once been tempted to try it.
Though we’ve been growing backyard tomatoes for the past several years at home, we default to an olive oil dressing — often with chopped shallots and a splash of vinegar, but sometimes with basil and a mozzarella we deem worthy of the tomatoes. For a sandwich, we pack these ingredients into a split baguette with a little prosciutto throw in for good measure.
Of course, I grew up before the Age of Caprese. Olive oil was something I saw in the gourmet foods aisle next to the tinned octopus, but not something my folks kept in the kitchen. Nor did we have a vegetable garden. Instead, we bought our summer tomatoes from roadside farm stands on the way to the Jersey shore. Once we got to the beach house, we made BLTs with toasted white bread, Hellman’s mayo, iceberg lettuce and Oscar Meyer’s finest. “There’s nothing like a Jersey tomato,” my mother would sigh.
I went to bed thinking, and then dreaming, of tomato sandwiches. So when I woke up this morning I went out to the garden and found one perfectly ripe Cherokee Purple tomato that pulled from the vine with a nudge.
I thought of making a nice BLT. I thought of the Holy Trinity of tomatoes, basil and olive oil. I then thought of the seeming apostasy of mayonnaise. I really should try it…
This project involved a run to Kroger because our bread choices consisted of English muffins or a multigrain loaf that promised enough fiber in each serving to last through the recession. Nor did we have prepared mayonnaise.
Most of my friends recommended Duke’s mayonnaise. One said Kraft had a preferable “lemony” flavor. North Carolina chef and author Bill Smith wrote a great piece about the tomato sandwich and admitted, with perhaps a touch of contrition, he preferred Hellman’s.
“Duke’s seems too sweet to me,” Smith writes, “but I refuse to get really worked up about this. People should suit themselves. We’re talking about lunch , not a historical re-enactment.”
So I went with Hellman’s, hoping I’d tap into a vein of flavor nostalgia that would explain the tomato sandwich to my tastebuds. I almost bought Sara Lee white bread, but couldn’t go through with it. I haven’t had a piece of squishy white bread stick to the roof of my mouth for years, and couldn’t see going back. Pepperidge Farm white would be plenty soft.
And so I made my sandwich: a thick-but-not-too smear of mayo on each slice of bread, two juicy rounds of my prize tomato, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Holy. Freaking. Face-stuffingness.
I’ve been missing this all my life?
How do you describe a taste that your soul already knows but your tongue says is a novel thrill?
I get it.
The mayo and the anodyne bread put the sweetness and acid of the tomato in high relief with their richness and ballast.
That tomato — rich in natural glutamates that make the mouth water and the tongue tingle with the sensation of umami — belongs as much between two pieces of bread as a juicy burger or a mound of warm corned beef.
I felt stunned by the yearning receptiveness of my tastebuds to this flavor, but not too stunned to eat a second sandwich. This must be as close as I’ve gotten in life to reproducing the sensation of suckling.
I had to run to work, but not before giving one of my daughters precise instructions on how to make her own sandwich with the leftovers.
“Tomato with mayonnaise?” she asked incredulously. “Gross!”
“Trust me,” I said.