In August 2012, summer lunch changed forever.
Katy invited me over for tomato sandwiches. She’d been talking about them since winter, when it was so cold I couldn’t imagine warming up again. The crocuses finally did come out, of course, and as the short spring gave way to scorch, Katy mentioned tomato sandwiches more often. She lived on them in August, she said, and having grown up on tomatoes from her dad’s garden in Georgia, claimed we had to wait until the tomatoes were perfect: August.
I was leery. Katy has an excellent palate, and though I love tomatoes, I also believe in managing expectations, especially my own. What she described — bread, mayo and tomato — sounded too simple to be sublime, even when I saw the luscious heirloom, dense with juice. It had cost her $4.00.
Katy was right. I alternated between nibbles to make it last and huge chomps. It was love. She’d toasted hearty multigrain under a broiler (yes in August, yes in Brooklyn), slathered the pieces with Hellmann’s and topped them with thick (1/3 inch) slices of that tomato. A tiny bit of salt, a tiny bit of pepper, a scattering of tiny basil-leaf shreds. We ate in silence.
We had to wait till the tomatoes were perfect: August.
Why the hell are tomato sandwiches so good? I figure it’s got something to do with the acidity of the tomato. Mild as it is, it makes everything shine. It commingles with the mayonnaise and gives it a three-dimensional tang. The mayo, in turn, finds its way into the toast’s little crannies, and the whole thing becomes the only instance of refreshing umami I know.
Later I found that tomato sandwiches were a thing. A Southern thing, mostly. Still, the Spanish have their pan con tomate (that’s toast rubbed with garlic and olive oil, then tomato), and the Italians their bruschetta. Harriet the Spy — heroine of the children’s novel and the movie — lived on tomato sandwiches. She ate them every day for lunch — white bread, mayonnaise and tomato — despite her mother’s cajoling to please, please, please try something else.
“Listen, Harriet, you’ve taken a tomato sandwich to school every day for five years. Don’t you get tired of them?”
“How about cream cheese and olive?”
Harriet shook her head. The cook threw up one arm in despair.
“Pastrami? Roast beef? Cucumber?”
Most tomato-sandwich lovers have some Harriet in them. They swear by squishy white bread, mayonnaise and tomato: everything else is blasphemy. Or they sub butter for the mayonnaise. Some swear by toasting; others decry it. Additions like basil, anchovies, capers, mozzarella, avocado — these are controversies. In some quarters, even salt and pepper are frowned upon.
Though I won’t be eating these permutations anytime soon, I would not criticize them. (My love for tomato sandwiches is so relatively new that I might not have standing anyway.) Love is love: you could not imagine your beloved any other way.
Still there is one thing Katy won’t compromise on, and neither should you. Wait for the right tomato. Otherwise, you may as well stick to pastrami.
Why you should care
Tomato sandwich. If it sounds dull, you haven’t had one.