The Blessed Tomato Sandwich

I wrote the column below for the Oakhurst Leaflet. After yesterday’s excursion to the Farmer’s Market, it seems like a good time to post it.

If I were to open my own restaurant, this would be the signature dish: “Summer Sandwich: Sliced heirloom tomatoes served on toasted home style bread with sea salt, cracked pepper, and mayonnaise.”

Southern natives will immediately recognize this as a gussied-up version of the humble tomato sandwich. I offer this as the signature dish for my imaginary restaurant because this ordinary concoction is to my mind one of the greatest pleasures of the summer–and with summer coming to a close, you have precious little time left to enjoy one.

No food is more perfect than the tomato while it’s in season. The plastic blobs tossed carelessly on our dinner salads and the pale tasteless linings to our fast-food sandwiches blind us to the glorious and heady wonders of an authentic, home-grown, blood-red tomato, sun-warmed and sweet. It’s the kind my grandmother described with joy in her old age: taking a jar of tomatoes she’d canned in August, she would sit down in the middle of December and lay one, whole, on a sandwich, just to get a taste of the bygone summer in the dead of winter.

Everyone who loves tomato sandwiches understands this feeling. The tomato is one of those foods whose days of wine and roses, like ours, are not terribly long. To prepare one for eating therefore requires an appropriate sense of reverence. The tomato sandwich–a blessed sacrament of warm bread and sunny tomato resting on a bed of cool creamy mayonnaise–provides a wonderful opportunity to experience this blessing.

Here is my version, honed after years of practice:

1. Go out into your garden and pick a tomato. Failing that, get the best local tomatoes you can find, preferably from a roadside farm stand. Hurry, because you won’t find them in the store from October through May.

2. Take two pieces of white bread and toast until lightly brown. Do not use wheat bread–it will overwhelm the flavor of the tomatoes and, even worse, will deteriorate into sogginess almost immediately.

3. While bread is toasting, slice your tomatoes, then halve the slices. This allows for proper distribution of the tomatoes on the bread.

4. When bread has toasted, spread a thick layer of mayonnaise (no light or nonfat!!) on both slices of bread. Distribute tomatoes over one of the slices. Salt and pepper tomato slices. A New York Italian friend who spent many years down South suggests celery salt. I am skeptical but he’s a great cook, so I offer it as a variation. Press second slice of bread on the first and cut into two triangles.

5. Pour yourself a glass of milk and head outside. Enjoy your tomato sandwiches while the last rays of summer shine on you. Then stay outside for a little longer and watch your neighbors walk by. Later, play with your children or give someone you love a phone call. Life is short, but tomatoes are still around, and there’s always hope for another summer.

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