I’ll never forget the moment I tasted my first tomato sandwich. Mrs. Dumesnil grew a half-dozen tomato plants in her back yard. I lived a block and a half away. Her son Craig is my lifelong pal. One day at lunchtime, Mrs. Dumesnil fixed my first tomato sandwich on toasted white bread.
Few first tastes are so divine or linger in my memory like this. Rhubarb pie comes close, but I never learned how to bake a rhubarb pie. It wasn’t hard to master a simple tomato sandwich. And yet, nearly 60 after my love affair began, I wonder if the tomato sandwich might be ripe for improvement.
I need to make a confession. I am a tomato sandwich recidivist. I began a paleo diet two weeks before my first tomato ripened in mid-July. (I started warming up with store bought tomatoes in mid-June.) Going cold turkey on tomato sandwiches in early July was as foolish as swearing off gambling the day before the Kentucky Derby.
The basic full-blown tomato sandwich with bacon and lettuce was not on the menu for hunters and gatherers. Bacon passes muster on most paleo diets; lettuce is good; but tomatoes— members of the deadly nightshade family—may have a downside for some of you. And cavemen and women definitely didn’t stock white bread or mayonnaise.
My buddy, Ralph Haas, and I went to the Kentucky State Fair two weeks ago looking for inspiration. We wanted to seek advice from Farm Bureau Freddy and also to see what looked good in the tomato contest.
Ralph and I are in tomato production. (That’s stretching the truth. My Salvisa, Kentucky, neighbor Walter Monroe is a real producer. Walter grows tomatoes for the Harrodsburg Farmer’s Market. He has harvested 20 bushels of tomatoes this year, each bushel weighing 53 pounds.) Ralph and I grow a couple of tomato plants. Our goal is a steady supply of tomatoes for sandwiches, for as many weeks as Mother Earth will allow.
The state fair tomato competition stoked our interest. We thought our homegrown tomatoes measured up to this year’s entries. We took notice and are putting the world on notice: We will be entering our tomatoes next year at the Kentucky State Fair.
Farm Bureau Freddy is the official Kentucky state fair greeter. Freddy has been welcoming boys and girls to the fair since 1958. I grew up with Freddy, then later I brought our kids to the fair. Now, my granddaughter gets dragged to see Freddy.
Ralph and I anxiously pushed past a couple of fairgoers to ask Freddy about his preferred tomato sandwich. Freddy, with barely a moment’s hesitation, his amplified voice coming from a hiding place nearby, said, “Grilled white toast with tomato, bacon and NO mayonnaise.”
No mayonnaise? This seems uncivilized, even for an oversized mannequin.
Ralph is a traditionalist. He likes his tomato sandwiches on toasted white Pepperidge Farm bread, slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise. Lettuce and a few slices of cucumbers are optional but seldom used. Homegrown tomatoes are essential. Ralph says, “The crunch of the toast—and bacon—is a nice combination with the soft squishiness of the tomatoes… I always blanch and peel my tomatoes. Always. No exceptions. Like my mom taught me.”
His wife, Christy, argues that store bought tomatoes would be so much easier, but she misses the point. These are Ralph’s tomatoes; his handcrafted sandwiches. And don’t forget: Ralph’s a player. Ralph will be a contender at next year’s Kentucky State Fair tomato contest.
Now to the bread decision. Sarah Owens won this year’s James Beard Award (Baking and Desserts) for Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More. She’s a pro. The talented gardener, forager and baker lives a block and a half from the beach in Rockaway, NY. Sarah is an advocate of scratch cooking and believes the purest ingredients, combined with simplicity, make the best sandwich. Her tomato sandwich choice is a Danish, open-faced Smørrebrød, using a thick piece of sourdough-rye bread, smeared with a big helping of homemade mayonnaise. This is piled high with slices of flavorful, heirloom tomatoes and christened with a little balsamico and a drizzle of good quality olive oil. Finish with a sprinkling of capers, fresh herbs of choice and flaked sea salt. Sarah suggests, “Rather than eating with your hands, gently approach the Smørrebrød with a knife and fork.”
Sarah’s forthcoming book, Toast & Jam: Modern Pairings for Rustic Baked Goods and Sweet and Savory Spreads, includes recipes for buttermilk rye Bread, homemade mayonnaise and capered aioli, as well as herb and citrus salts, all excellent ingredients for a fine tomato sandwich.
So, the tomato sandwich needn’t be on white toast.
The memory of Mrs. Dumesnil’s tomato sandwich is still fresh. Homegrown tomatoes are ripe. Sarah’s Smørrebrød looks tasty; so does Ralph’s go-to sandwich.
I’m turning a blind eye on my paleo diet until late blight or first frost cut down my tomato plants.
In the meantime, with my best Charlton Hesston accent, “Don’t even think about prying a fresh tomato sandwich out of my hands.”