Tomato sandwiches are just a part of being Southern in the summertime. I vividly recall a few summers ago, when C and I were driving through various counties of Alabama as part of my quest to photograph each county courthouse in the state, that we stopped on the side of the road in rural Bibb county and bought a few gorgeous, locally-grown Alabama tomatoes. We then stopped at a tiny gas station (that also served as a quasi-hardware/general store and movie rental), bought a loaf of cheap-ass white bread and a very overpriced jar of mayonnaise, then sat in the car and made tomato sandwiches, cutting the tomatoes and spreading the mayo with Case pocket knives.
Sure, we could have found a drive-thru and eaten some kind of fast food, but WHY?
Now, a TRUE Southern tomato sandwich is pretty simple. In fact, you WANT to keep things simple. Soft bread, tart-yet-sweet fresh tomatoes and creamy mayonnaise with just a bit of salt and pepper - that's it!
|From vine to sandwich in about an hour. The tomato was still warm from the sun.|
Don't get scared off by my list of dos and don'ts - I'm not trying to be a tomato sandwich Nazi, and no way is THE right way. I don't consider myself an expert, just a Southerner who LOVES a good tomato sandwich! :D
- Do get the cheapest, softest kind. I like store-brand bread. Don't waste your $$ on something like Whitewheat or Wonder Bread (oh, wait - that was a Hostess item). Bunny Bread is a GREAT option. This 'enriched' white bread has no flavor to compete with the tomato - it's basically just a vessel.
- Don't buy wheat bread, or something with 12-grains and flax seeds. It's healthier, and I DO buy those breads for 'regular' sandwiches, but they have no place in tomato sandwiches.
- Don't buy Texas Toast. It's too thick and just throws off the amazing tomato/mayo/bread ratio.
- Don't toast the bread. I know it seems like a great idea - with the crispiness offsetting the juiciness of the tomato, but don't do it. You actually want to have the bread absorb those amazing tomato juices and flavors. The bread will end up sticking all over the insides of your mouth - it's just part of the experience.
- Do use a brand like Hellmann's or Bama. Some folks swear by Duke's, but, personally, I'm not a fan.
- Don't use Miracle Whip. It has that weird fake-sweet flavor and a disconcerting tanginess. The Oatmeal knows what's up.
- Don't use Miracle Whip. This is so important that it needs to be stated twice. If you make a tomato sandwich with Miracle Whip, please don't comment and tell me that the sandwich tasted horrible. You've been warned.
- Don't be stingy with the mayonnaise (again, NOT MIRACLE WHIP). Be generous. Slather on a layer that would make a cardiologist weep. You shouldn't be able to see through the layer. If you can see bread crumb texture, add more mayonnaise.
- Do use GOOD tomatoes. The best tomatoes are home-grown. The second best are locally grown tomatoes, purchased off the side of the road or at a farmer's market. The best tomatoes here in Alabama come through anywhere between Straight and Sand Mountains. If you grow your own, German Johnsons are a GREAT sandwich tomato - the size and shape are PERFECT for slices of cheap-ass white bread. FWIW, An ugly, deformed tomato is usually the BEST tomato.
- Do buy tomatoes that have the correct shape and size. You want a tomato that, when sliced, will will be about the size of a slice of bread.
- Do use only one slice of tomato per sandwich. The best tomato sandwiches only need ONE slice of tomato. If you make a sandwich with multiple slices of tomato, you run a high risk of biting into the sandwich and pulling out an entire slice of tomato. Plus, it throws off that ever-important ratio. In a pinch, you can do two slices of tomato to fit the bread, but cut them so they don't overlap one another.
- Don't use hothouse tomatoes. The typical tomatoes sold in most grocery stores are absolutely TERRIBLE. They're usually orange-ish inside (instead of a gorgeous red), super mealy and devoid of any actual flavor. The telltale sign of a crappy grocery tomato is that it will be watery, not juicy. Also, these tomatoes are NEVER large enough to adequately cover a slice of bread. Avoid at all costs.
- Do slice your tomatoes correctly. You don't need a special 'uni-tasker' knife; you probably have the perfect knife already in your kitchen - a bread knife.
- Do slice your tomatoes thick enough. About 1/2" - 3/4" is perfect. 1" is a little too big. Anything under 1/2" is just pointless.
Salt & Pepper:
- Do feel free to season with some salt and pepper. The cheap stuff is fine. You don't have to use a grinder and freshly crack some Tellicherry peppercorns. You don't have to use Himalayan pink sea salt.
- Don't try to get fancy and add other spices like garlic salt or cayenne. Stick to JUST salt and pepper.
It might be hard to fight the urge to add other ingredients like mustard or cheese or pickle slices. Resist the urge. Don't add lettuce or bacon - this is a tomato sandwich, not a BLT. Read the comments here - I'm sure these changes/additions make some damn fine sandwiches, but it won't make a Southern tomato sandwich. Just sayin'.
OK, OK, I GET IT. NOW HOW DO I MAKE A TOMATO SANDWICH?
Take out 2 slices of cheap-ass white bread. Don't put the bag away, though - you will probably want a second sandwich. Slather each slice of bread with a hefty gob of mayonnaise.
Using a bread knife, slice the tomato into 1/2" - 3/4" thick slices. Take the best-looking slice (just one!) and place it atop the mayonnaise-slathered slice of bread.
|Yes, these tomatoes really are that red inside.|
Eat the sandwich over a paper plate or the kitchen sink. The tomato juices will combine with the mayonnaise into a milky pink juice that will run all over your hands and down your arms. Don't worry about slicing the sandwich in half unless you just want to. Wash it down with a cold drink, preferably one in a glass bottle.