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THE tomato sandwich. A first-timer’s tale

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.

105 comments Add your comment

Stan

July 9th, 2009
5:06 pm

That’s why I like to read your work John. You rave like about the simple pleasures with more feeling than you do the $35 dinner for one at the bar. (I almost choked at the thought of dinner for one costing more than ~$10 tops)

Note: I could not eat a raw tomato if my life depended on it. Cooked I’m fine with.

marykayandrews

July 9th, 2009
5:28 pm

Two words. Duke’s rules. John, I’m headed for the Jersey shore this weekend. I intend to stop at the first farmstand I see, buy me one of them yankee ‘maters and check it out to see if it stands up to the ‘maters ripening in our garden back home in Atlanta. One hitch. I forgot to pack my jar of Duke’s in with my book-siging equipment.

Ralph Ellis

July 9th, 2009
5:40 pm

Welcome to the Southland.

DX

July 9th, 2009
5:44 pm

Delightful. Welcome to the South.

Lynn Kessel

July 9th, 2009
6:01 pm

During the first weekend in May, you must come try our Ruskin tomatoes at the Ruskin Tomato Festival. Every visitor gets free, sliced tomatoes and tomato sandwiches are sold to benefit charity. Each year, around 2,000 visitors get fully grown tomato plants, as well.

The Food Tutor

July 9th, 2009
7:08 pm

It really is quite amazing, isn’t it?

In disagreement with the Duke’s comment, I’d note that the reasons I like Duke’s are a) it’s really cheap, and sometimes the cheapest one on the shelf and b) it doesn’t contain sugar, which means you can have it if you’re low-carbing, in which case you couldn’t eat this as a sammich anyway, but I find it to be less sweet than other mayos, and certainly much less sweet than the Miracle Whip my mother prefers.

At any rate, my incredible stinginess usually brings me to make this sandwich with generic white bread (or banh mi bread, since that’s cheap too), generic mayo and roma tomatoes, if I must have one off-season. In-season, anything goes, but sometimes you just gotta have it.

Lisa

July 9th, 2009
8:50 pm

We have some Rutger’s tomatoes on our deck. I am watching to see when they will be ripe enough for a ‘mater sammie. I am a yankee gal and I LOVE them. Don’t care a whit about adding bacon BUT I do require Hellman’s. Duke’s is too sweet and watery to me. Again, I am a yankee. Still waiting for my tomatoes..

Stuart

July 9th, 2009
11:57 pm

I SERIOUSLY beg to disagree with anyone claiming Duke’s is too sweet. Duke’s has had the same recipe for 100 years, and it’s never involved adding sugar, as it clearly says on the label. “Contains no sugar.” Anyone claiming Duke’s is too sweet has never actually tried Duke’s. It’s a rural myth. I have eaten tomato sandwiches most of my 49 years, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I insist on Duke’s. When I lived outside the south, I brought jars with me, or had them sent. Hellman’s, Kraft, Blue Plate, etc….they’re like the Zima of mayonnaise.

Regarding “alternative ingredients….” Lou Reed once said “If it has more than three chords, it’s jazz.” Country music is called “three chords and the truth.” (Well, it used to be, anyway.) So if it’s got anything besides tomatoes, mayonnaise and bread, with a little salt & pepper, it ain’t a tomato sandwich.

caren goode

July 10th, 2009
10:15 am

If you really want to live, put a slice of vidalia onion on it! Hellman’s forever!

Darin

July 10th, 2009
11:15 am

Hmm, you’ve almost convinced me to try one. I’m a Georgia native myself and I’ve never indulged. My Dad used to make this sandwich all the time when I was a kid from tomatoes we grew in our own garden, but when I saw him eat one I thought it looked incredibly gross. Part of my problem then was that I didn’t like mayo.

But I’ve grown up now and I’ve learned to love Duke’s mayo, so I might give this sandwich a try if I can get a hold of some decent tomatoes.

Question: doesn’t the bread, when it’s untoasted, combine with the squishy texture of the tomatoes and mayo to make an overall too-soft sandwich? That’s my main hesitation — that I’m not going to like the texture of it. Someone convince me I’m wrong about that, please, so I can build up the courage.

Stan

July 10th, 2009
12:07 pm

Darin,
IMO the mayo acts as a shield for the bread to keep it from turning into mush. So the mayo is very important, not brand as much as just it being on BOTH slices of bread.

And your not alone…I’m tempted to try once again in sammich form even though I can’t stad raw matters.

Lisa

July 10th, 2009
8:49 pm

I have tried Dukes and it tastes sweet to me. Don’t care that the label says no sugar. Maybe it’s just the yankee in me. Not worth fighting over.

Minjenah

July 11th, 2009
1:32 am

Tomato sandwiches are the best. White squishy bread is very important. As for mayo, I actually like to make my own. It tastes brighter somehow. And I like a little Vidalia sweet onion in mine.

Art

July 11th, 2009
6:41 pm

I grow tomatoes every year for one purpose and one purpose only… a tomato sandwich. I may later make BLT’s, Caprese salad, etc. but the very first thing must be a tomato sandwich… Duke’s is good and so is Hellman’s… during the course of the summer I’ll use both… The bread must be Wonder Bread… so soft it clings to the roof of your mouth… kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper are a must as well. I haven’t had my first yet… the tomato worms and the rabbits have been doing their darndest to spoil my fun but I will eventually persevere… the bread and the mayo are waiting in the cupboard.

Frank

July 11th, 2009
9:10 pm

Yall Atlanta yankees have never had a good tomato sandwich. Down here in Savannah we use Dukes, garden grown tomatos, salt, pepper and Captain John Derst bread made right here in the heart of the real south.

Marsi Thrash

July 11th, 2009
9:14 pm

Hellmann’s is a must. Welcome to the addiction! There is nothing like a tomato sandwich that’s still warm from the sun. I like my white bread toasted every so slightly – a delicate crispness on the outside, but no change in color. I also like to add very, very thinly sliced Viadlia onions (only VIDALIA!) sometimes.

Another amazing way to use summer tomatoes is tomato pie. Bake off a pie shell and then layer it with sliced tomatoes, dried basil, salt and pepper. Top it with 3/4 cup mayo mixed with 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar, spread over the pie like a crust. Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes, or until the crust is bubbly and melted. Heaven.

JR

July 11th, 2009
9:15 pm

They taste even better standing over the kitchen sink.

Luvem

July 11th, 2009
9:34 pm

White bread, mayo(any kind), GEORGIA tomatoes with high acid content, chilled, salt and lots of pepper equals heaven. I know folks, myself included, who “break out” in a rash from eating to many…Lord, I’m starving!

SS

July 11th, 2009
9:43 pm

We would have a garden in the summertime and as a treat, my mom would cut the tomato add salt and pepper, and we would eat it without the bread. It was the best thing to eat besides corn on the cob and every now and then, I have a tomato sandwich and think of that garden and summertime when I was young.

jon

July 11th, 2009
9:46 pm

John,

You have been close to the perfect Southern sammitch, but you need to tweak the recipe.

Blue Plate Mayo. Sunbeam bread, and home grown Big Boy tomato. You want a ‘mater that is big enough around the middle so that it only takes one slice for the sandwich. Cut you about a 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick slice and slap it on that Sunbeam. Ahhhhh, slap your Mama good!

My parents and paternal grandparents moved to the South in the 1950s so I had to learn the pleasures of the mater sandwich from a lady up the road that I cut grass for as a teenager. I recall my folks saying that one thing about the South that amazed them was that people would make a sandwich out of anything. Tomatoes, pineapple, cucumbers.

teresa

July 11th, 2009
10:35 pm

Now eat a banana sandwhich, minus the salt and pepper

Carter is a Fool

July 11th, 2009
10:39 pm

I like to put them on toast and add a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. Great with a few chips to go with it.

jon

July 11th, 2009
10:57 pm

I forgot nanner sammitches,

Then we could into the perfect BLT.

ADL

July 11th, 2009
11:12 pm

Bravo Jon.

One tomato slice should be enough for one sandwich. Overlapping slices get messy.

Any mayonnaise works well, except Kraft. Way too much lemon.

jon

July 11th, 2009
11:14 pm

And I would like to add this comment to the discussion. I have never bought a tomato that was fit to eat. Seriously, whether it’s supermarket, organic, side of the road, or whatever.

The simulated tomato product that is sold in this modern world is a joke. Yes, even the road-side stand and Farmers’ Market ones suck. And I think that the plants we are buying for home-growing are getting genetically closer to the “truck farm” tomatoes we are offered everywhere else.

jon

July 11th, 2009
11:24 pm

ADL,

Multiple slices is just wrong. On the single slice sandwich, the skin will help contain the juices. We want the juice to mix with the mayo, salt and pepper and soak into the white bread – minimizing the chin dribble.

jdelaney724@hotmail.com

July 11th, 2009
11:47 pm

Hellmans, all thy way! Duke sucks, and so does Miracle Whip!

Yank

Western Yankee

July 12th, 2009
12:10 am

Being a “Western Yankee” growing up on the West Coast, it is whole grain bread,Miracle Whip light and tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper for me. The bacon is optional, but I do like it on my sandwich.

Tom

July 12th, 2009
12:24 am

Its the best tasting sandwich on a hot day with a glass of sweet tea.

jon

July 12th, 2009
12:30 am

Western Yankee, so it’s whole grain bread and Miracle Whip light for you?

Whole grain bread? Give me a break! We are talking about the ultimate Southern culinary sandwich here and you are worried about your d*mn colon?? Coddle your colon for 10 months out of the year, but when it’s hot and muggy in Georgia, and the homegrown tomatoes are coming in, slap that ‘mater on some Sunbeam bread.

Why die unfulfilled?

Bill

July 12th, 2009
1:05 am

White bread, mayo(Dukes or Blue Plate), salt, & homegrown ripe tomato=Summertime heaven. One of the true pleasures of summer. Its right up there with the first bushel of silver queen, catching fireflies with the kids, & wading out into the waves in Panama City Beach.

Lou

July 12th, 2009
1:54 am

Blue Plate–the full-bodied kind–is my favorite mayo for taste. Don’t know where it’s made–north or south. However, I now buy only Hellman’s Light, the only reduced calorie mayo I’ve ever bought that is fit to eat and that didn’t very soon end up in the glass recycle bin. It’s great on those tomato sandwiches with Publix’s White Mountain bread. You won’t believe the size of those bread slices!!

DBA

July 12th, 2009
3:20 am

I know it is comfort food, but I don’t get the fascination with cheap white bread….it isn’t about nutritional content….but why not an artisan bread with a little flavor?

DLR

July 12th, 2009
5:05 am

BIG BOY Tomato + Blue Plate Mayo + Fresh soft home made white bread + Salt + Pepper. Glass of sweet tea. For dessert make another one. Nothing more needed.

Steve

July 12th, 2009
5:56 am

Forget the mayo.
Take your favorite bread add the tomatos.
Add some good bacon.
Add some good white cheese like Gruyer.
Butter the bread on the outsides and grill this.

You will smile!

fk

July 12th, 2009
7:17 am

Skip the bread and substitute cold pasta. Simple macaroni salad…with only tomatoes & mayo — a sprinkle of celery salt & pepper, of course. Always a hit.

Mary Cole

July 12th, 2009
7:30 am

biscuit with a slice of tomato in it is beeter than any pie

Tom

July 12th, 2009
7:34 am

Our version of this is instead of Mayo, use crushed avocado, put the sliced tomato on top, salt, black pepper, and a little tabasco……fantastic flavor!

M. Ward

July 12th, 2009
8:16 am

You are missing one critical condition of tomato sandwich eating. the kitchen sink. A truly southern tomato sandwich requires the critical placement of the eaters elbows on either side of the kitchen sink. Eat the sandwich over the sink, allowing juices to run down your chin and into the sink!!

Deborah Liberatore

July 12th, 2009
8:16 am

Adding some OLD BAY SEASONING is very good too,

Johnny

July 12th, 2009
8:45 am

I prefer Kraft mayo and I am glad you did not insult your sandwich with other ingredients. You can always add more things later if you want.

Some things you just don’t mess around with – you know what works, so why take a chance of disappointment or not being totally fulfilled with pleasure.

It is so simple I I grew up eating them but haven’t had one in 20+ years (marriage seems to sometimes removes simple pleasures).

Sine you have your white bread and mayo handy, try a scrambled egg sammich next. Lots of pepper.

suzy

July 12th, 2009
8:57 am

Whole wheat bread really does make a good tomato sandwich…to me white bread is too squishy…but I buy the whitewheat when my kids are visiting since they insist it’s better for a tomato sandwich. Duke’s mayo is the best, of course. Still waiting for my tomatoes to ripen in my backyard garden…love a plate of garden fresh sliced cucumbers that have been sprinkled with vinegar on the side.

southern

July 12th, 2009
9:06 am

oh please try a pineapple sandwich. I don’t know if its a southern thing but it is soooo good. sunbeam white bread, hellmans mayo and pineapples. mmmmmmmm

melissa's mom

July 12th, 2009
9:11 am

Suzy, I agree with you. White bread gets too soggy. Publix 100% whole wheat bread is very good and isn’t too heavy like some wheat breads. Any kind of mayo will do for me but I usually use Blue Plate with my home grown tomatoes.

One of our favorite summer meals is fried chicken with a tomato sandwich as a side dish. Makes a great picnic, too – not too messy.

Paddy

July 12th, 2009
9:17 am

The only mayo is Hellmann’s. Duke’s is too greesey or something. Ok I guess if you happen to be out of Hellmann’s. It is called Best Foods west of the Rockies. Think I will try the pineapple sandwich, sounds good.

Paddy

July 12th, 2009
9:28 am

Whole wheat, avacado and no mayo…you ain’t from around here are you, boy?

Noelle

July 12th, 2009
9:36 am

Sunbeam Giant bread + Hellman’s Light mayo build the perfect frame for many different delicious fillings. Tomato (with salt and pepper) is one of the best, but also try sliced banana; sliced pineapple; sliced cucumbers (with salt and pepper); or a Kraft single, sliced ham, and just a bit of mustard.

melissa's mom

July 12th, 2009
9:38 am

One more thing. John, of all the weird things you’ve written about that you’ve eaten, I can’t believe you’ve never had a ‘mater samich! Shameful! What about ‘nanner puddin’? It’s real goooood!

Yup, I said it!

July 12th, 2009
10:17 am

After reading this article and the comments, my curiosity was piqued! Immediately ran to Publix to grab the biggest beefsteak tomato I could find and a loaf of Cap’t John Derst bread (the best, IMO). Since I already had a jar of Hellmann’s and some salt & pepper here at the house I was on my way to finding out what all the hype is about.

Honestly, as I first timer-I was HOOKED!!! One of the best simple sandwiches I have ever tasted!! So good, I ate two of ‘em in one sitting (I’ll try that over the sink thing next time!)

Thanks for the tip!! Had my first ‘mater sammich, so now, I’m legit!! Bring on the VARSITY….

MrsA

July 12th, 2009
10:38 am

The summertime tomato sandwich is the reigning queen of Southern sandwiches. Ingredients in order of importance are: a LOCAL vine-ripened tomato (acidic variety preferred), good mayo (Duke’s, Hellman’s regular or light, Kraft, Blue Plate – I would add homemade, but there’s no quality control there and I haven’t tasted yours – I’ve tried all the rest), and a nice soft bread (white, Roman Meal, a biscuit, etc.). My daily dose yesterday was made with an heirloom tomato I BOUGHT (yessir, you CAN buy a good tomato) at the organic farmer’s market in downtown Decatur (Wednesday afternoons), Hellman’s light mayo, Pepperidge Farm dark pumpernickel bread, and coarse ground black pepper. (Salt would not have ruined it) It was delicious – because of the tomato!!! Within reason, changing the bread, changing the mayo would not have mattered; a tasteless, “factory produced” tomato would have mattered. In an off-season moment of desperation I have used grape tomatoes sliced in half and found the taste pretty good. I think the white bread thing is overrated – probably became tradition because it was the most readily available at the store for years. I do think the bread needs to be somewhat soft. I know, too much information; it’s the Southern way.

So on to the pineapple sandwich – another summertime, spend-the-day-at- the-pool Southern tradition. Drained, canned pineapple, soft bread, good mayo – easy lunchtime fare. I knew a south GA man who proudly took his two young sons to Athens for their first GA Bulldog football game. At halftime, he took them to the concession stand and asked them what they wanted. The younger son looked up at his dad and without hesitation said “A pineapple sandwich”.