Editor’s note: Last summer, Virginia Willis wrote a series of blog posts for us on the iconic summer foods of the south. The series was so tasty that we’ve decided to share some of the posts again. There’s still time to enjoy these ingredients while they are ripe!
In this series for the SFA I am examining iconic Southern foods that define summer. I’m sharing a little history and a recipe or two that I hope you will enjoy. We kicked off the series with homemade ice cream and then I went crazy for corn! Coming up, we’ll feature squash, peas & beans, okra, peaches, and finish up right before Labor Day with a low and slow barbecued Boston butt. Ah, but this week, it’s all about tomatoes.
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.