Somebody asked me recently which I’d rather give up if forced to, tomatoes or potatoes. Although my reluctance to part with french fries was great, I knew that I couldn’t imagine a life without tomatoes, because pasta sauces and pizzas and all things caprese are much too near and dear to my heart. But one of the very best ways to eat a tomato, which you might agree with if you grew up with an abundance of them fresh out of the garden each summer as I did, is the classic tomato sandwich. Now, I realize that discussing garden-fresh tomato sandwiches in the dead of February might be considered cruel and unusual treatment, but I am going to anyhow, because going through hard things is good for you.
I’ll eat a tomato sandwich whenever it’s offered, pretty much. I’ll eat one even if the bread is mushy or the tomatoes are mealy or the mayonnaise lacking. It’s kind of like pizza- even bad pizza is kind of good. But when I have the privilege of eating The Best Tomato Sandwich, I am a happy camper.
A tomato sandwich is simple, bread, tomato, and a dressing. But what is it that sets apart a truly great one?
First off, the bread must be fresh out of my mother’s oven, and it must be white. Save eating the healthy, grainy breads for later. This time we need a white, fluffy, pillowy-but-not-mushy slice, the kind which I am convinced my mother makes best. If you do not know my mother and cannot obtain any, I am sorry for you, but perhaps you have a mother with magical bread-skills too.
Next, we spread it with mayonnaise or miracle whip. I know many people have strong feelings that it must be one or the other of those. I don’t, and shall let you fight it out among yourselves, but it does need to be one of those, and not butter.
Now, for the tomato. It’s midsummer in our imaginings, so we can easily obtain one straight from the garden of someone or other. Preferably it will be a little blemished and crooked, to show it isn’t a perfectly manicured and tasteless thing. A red one will do if it must, but since this is imaginary, we’ve found the perfect pink or yellow one, which is much more flavorful in my opinion. It smells like sunshine and dirt and the color green, and runs with juice when we slice it. It is huge, and one thick slice easily fills up the whole piece of bread, even hanging out over the edges a tad.
We will salt it generously, and grind a dusting of black pepper over the top, and it is ready to go. Thick and juicy, impossible to eat neatly unless you are Polly Espy, and unbelievably delicious- it is the epitome of summer.
If you want a little more za za zing, you can always add a slice of cheese and/or a few fresh basil leaves or pesto. Or make it a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich complete with chilies and dijon mustard, like The Pioneer Woman does. But nothing will ever quite surpass the joy of a simple tomato sandwich, straight from the garden and warm with sunshine and the taste of summer. I can’t wait.
A year ago: Judson Anthony