One of the things I love about living in the South is the food. Yeah, I know all about the propensity to fry just about anything that can be eaten. That includes two of those foods I love – fried okra and fried green tomatoes. And hell, if you haven’t had a fried pickle, you just haven’t lived.
But there’s much more to it than fried food.
For instance there is one goody that you’re most likely not going to find in a Pennsylvania roadside produce stand that is almost a staple at a Southern produce stand. I speak, reverently, of boiled peanuts. I can’t tell you how many northerners I’ve converted over the years to this Southern delicacy. I’ve stopped many a time while driving from, say Huntsville, AL to Montgomery to pick up a hot quart of these beauties. With plenty of paper towels and an ability to drive with my knee, I’ve eaten these things until the steering wheel has a bit of a salt crust. Please note: If you’ve been driving down I-75 and stopped at Jim Bob’s Pecan Farm and bought a can of “boiled peanuts” you are a true Yankee (and Jim Bob is still chuckling about it).
Another of my Southern favorites is the tomato sandwich (or “mater sammich” if you want to go deep South). Now, before you get all excited and run off to make one, there are some things you need to know. While it is indeed a simple delight it does have certain stringent requirements that must be met before it is certified as the “real deal”. So pay attention.
First, it has to be on white bread. And not some “artesian”, whole grain ,fru-fru white bread. We’re talking Wonder Bread white bread. Yup, if it isn’t made with overprocessed bleached white flour with no nutritional value, it’s not fit for a tomato sandwich.
Secondly it has to have mayonnaise on it. Real mayonnaise – not “lite” or aioli or any other nasty concoction that’s low on cholesterol. Mayonnaise. Real, honest to goodness, artery clogging Hellman’s. Or Duke’s.
There is a heretic band of Southerners who claim Miracle Whip is a sanctioned substitute, but purists turn up their nose at such a desecration of a sacred Southern staple.
And, of course, wonderful, vine ripe, plump and thick homegrown tomato slices. And that’s where the eternal hunt for the tastiest tomato comes in.
Now obviously you can grow your own – and that’s preferred. But if, in your harried and hurried life, lovingly caring for a few dozen tomato vines isn’t in your future, you must, of necessity, develop your tomato sources. And trust me one of them isn’t Publix, home of more tasteless tomatoes than Food Giant. Or is it the other way around. Over the years grocery stores have tried their best to improve their tomato selection, even dragging in the little red golf balls still on the vines. But they still taste like the picked-green-and-gassed store-bought maters.
No we’re talking sources which grow their own, vine ripen them and have enough for others to buy. As you might imagine Southerners hold their tomato sources close. We’re likely to share our winter tomato sources because we can appreciate the need for a decent tomato during that season when the tomato craving hits you. We all know a year round produce place that imports Florida tomatoes. Not the picked-green-boxed-and-gassed variety, but those that are vine ripened and sold locally in FL. While they’re a commercial brand in which most of the taste has been genetically removed in favor of pest resistance and longevity in storage, they still have enough tomato taste to get you through the dark times.
But when summer rolls around, it is everyone for themselves. And July is the peak of tomato hunting season because that’s when the heirlooms come in. For taste, it’s pretty darn hard to beat ’em. There’s a type for every taste (this morning I visited my heirloom source and came home with some beauties the size of my fist).
However, other than taste, there are other requirements for the perfect tomato sandwich tomato. I mentioned plump. Like in not grainy or mealy. Ye gods there is nothing worse than cutting into what looks like a fantastic tomato and finding the inside all mealy. Blech.
The tomato must be red, although some sort of orangish or pinkish tomatos, if they’re heirlooms, are becoming grudgingly accepted. But as good as they taste in a salad, don’t hand me any yellow looking tomato in my tomato sandwich.
Last but not least, it has to smell like a tomato. If I have to tell you what a tomato smells like, I’ll just refer you back to Food Giant because you wouldn’t know a good tomato if you were formally introduced.
So take your white bread, mayonnaise and beautiful, plump and tasty tomato and combine to make a sandwich. Salt and pepper to taste. By the way, the healthy aspects of the tomato are enough to offset the health destroying aspects of the bread and mayo making this a health neutral treat and not likely to be banned under the upcoming new health care regime.