Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.
In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.
Fresh tomatoes are only ever good in summer. There is nothing as wonderful as the full, rich, almost wine-like flavor of a vine ripe tomato—just as there is nothing as disappointing as the dull, insipid, lifeless flavor of a cold storage tomato shipped from halfway around the world. I don’t eat those and strongly suggest that you don’t, either. So, when it’s tomato season, I heartily endorse eating those glorious ripe ones as often as possible.
Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family, along with eggplant and peppers. There’s something a bit sexy about those nightshades; maybe it’s the deadly, yet beautiful part…Tomatoes are, in fact, a fruit, but their affinity for other savory ingredients means that they are usually classed as a vegetable. This was actually determined by a court of law.
It wasn’t a group of grumpy gardeners; like many legal cases, it was all about the money. In March of 1883, a tariff was imposed on imported vegetables, but not on fruit. Four years later, the Nix family of New York state filed a cased against Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York. The Nixes claimed they were owed taxes that were paid to the Port of New York under protest. Their argument was that the tomatoes they were importing were not vegetables, but fruits and therefore should not be taxed. (It’s one of those Jeopardy questions that you can argue about with your uncle.)
According to the Texas A & M school of agriculture, tomatoes originated in western South America, crossed the Atlantic to Spain with the conquistadors in the 16th century, but only caught on in northern Europe in the 19th century. In the U.S., it was not until after the Declaration of Independence that there was any record of the tomato being grown by folks of European descent.
It was (who else?) über farmer and statesman Thomas Jefferson who meticulously recorded growing tomatoes in 1781. (He’s the Catherine de Medici of North America; without TJ, who knows what we’d be eating and drinking!)
Tomatoes were in New Orleans as early as 1812, doubtlessly through French influence, but it was at least another 20 years before they were grown for food in the northeastern part of the country. When did the tomato become such a mainstay of a Southern summer?
Here’s the deal: I don’t know how they came to be an iconic Southern summer food, but I sure am glad they did. And here’s my second, somewhat revelatory admission about tomatoes: my hands-down, absolute favorite way of eating a tomato in summer is served sliced on white bread with mayonnaise. No chiffonade of basil or tender leaves of oregano. No artisan sourdough bread. No extra virgin olive oil. No hand-pounded garlic aioli. No hand-harvested sea salt. No lemon zest. Not even a slice of crisp, applewood-smoked bacon. Out, out, damn spots of cracked Tellicherry pepper!
This, my friends, is what I crave. I plan it like a mission. It starts with choosing the perfectly imperfect loaf of squishy white bread in the aisle of the grocery store. I will not deny it. I am greedy.
As I assemble the sandwich, I feel my mouth water. My throat and stomach tingle. I want. To hell with gourmet. I want cheap and cheerful. I want old school. I never saw nor tasted an heirloom tomato in my whole entire life until I was fully-grown. Green tomatoes? Purple tomatoes? What the heck? (At least where a tomato sandwich is concerned.) Tomatoes are red. I want cheap, off the grocery store shelf, white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I want it slathered—really, really slathered—with store-bought mayonnaise out of a jar, paired with meaty, thick, juicy slices of tomato.
I cut the sandwich in half and eat it over the kitchen sink to best catch the juices dripping down my chin. I sigh blissfully.
If you haven’t had this combination, I suggest you try it as soon as possible. If you have had it, I think you’ve already stopped reading because you’ve raced out to buy that bread you haven’t bought in ages so that you, too, can really taste summer.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
2 slices white bread
1 to 4 tablespoons store-bought mayonnaise, depending on your mayonnaise proclivity
1 medium tomato, cored and thickly sliced
Coarse kosher salt, for seasoning
Spread the mayonnaise mixture on the top of 2 slices of bread. Place the sliced tomato on top of one bread slice. Place the remaining slice of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomato. Season the tomatoes with salt. Cut the sandwich in half and eat.
[Editor's note: The Eatocracy staff has a thing for Duke's as pictured in the gallery above, but the best mayonnaise on this sandwich is whichever is your favorite.]
Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog
Ode to a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread (a.k.a. the best sandwich in the universe)
Master the Caprese salad
Capturing summer in a mason jar
How the modern-day tomato came to be
Homemade ice cream
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind
Best sandwich in the world. Use only local tomatoes. Store bought or refrigerated tomatoes are to be avoided at all costs. Add horseradish to the mayo for a kick. It accents the tomatoe taste without detracting from it. Go light on salt and pepper.
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Tomatoes, fresh out of a garden, sliced, served with fresh basil leaves. No bread to distract. Perfection on a plate. If I do have bread, it's warm, fresh from the oven, and as thinly sliced as possible (and it's not "white"), with a good mayo.
Officially in love! Can't wait to try this.
Love to go to the back yard and pick warm juicy red tomato. I too love the cheap bread and Miracle Whip. .No restaurant ever offers them. Priceless!!!
Reblogged this on Ideas by Katherine and commented:
perfect for this time of year
Tomatoes are good for throwing. That is all.
yours is a sad life.
I eat tomatoes everyday. I love all varieties in every way imaginable. All you need is a five gallon bucket or a hangar set up to grow them. Yes!!!
A southern take on a NY classic: bagels, cream cheese, salt, pepper, dill, garlic, and sliced tomatoes. Best breakfast ever!
There is nothing better for breakfast than a slice of toast coated in peanut butter with wonderful fresh tomatoes on top!!
That tomato sandwich is missing a key ingredient: BACON!
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I love you
LOL! The best!
This reminds me of "Harriet the Spy" and her tomato sandwich everyday.
For me, only go with the Beef Steak variety. Firm, not runny, taste explosion. Add fresh mozzarella, basil, and olive oil and voila.
For some reason I can eat them night and day and never get sick of eating them...miracle fruit.
I totally misread your online handle....
I'm into that too ;-)
Damn! My kinda girl:)
Black Krim! Aunt Rubys German Green! Black Brandywine! Gazpacho! Fresh pasta sauce! Caprese Salad!!! Salsas!!!!!
Ohh just plain ol wedges on a plate. My heilooms would convince Virginia that while red is good black green and/or purple is better!
Cold slices of 'maters on a plate doused with some sea salt is heaven. When the tomatoes are literally ripening at 30/day it's hard to keep up without getting the hershey squirts.
squaw bread. pineapple heirloom tomato. dear lord.
I grew up eating tomato sandwiches; however, my mother always added potato chips to them. Still love the combination. Try it with cucumbers rather than tomatoes and it is even better.
Tomatoes and I have had a love affair for years. Don't tell the cucumber plants next to her.
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