Nothing says “summer” to a Southerner quite so much as summer tomatoes.
Many of my Northern friends laugh at me, because they’ve never had a tomato sandwich with a summer tomato fresh from the garden – only tomatoes fresh from the grocery store. And those grocery store tomatoes – although beautiful from the outside – bear no comparison to garden tomatoes. Summer garden tomatoes are sweet, juicy, bursting with earthy flavor. Store tomatoes (at least the “slicing” ones) are hard, watery, mealy, and flavorless.
Growing up in Charlotte, NC, tomatoes (or “maters”) were a big deal. Everyone either had a garden or knew someone with a garden.
“How are the Big Boys doing?” was a common greeting at church and the hardware store – and no one was referring to the six-foot-four twins Billy Bob and Jimmy John.
A guest to a dinner might take a couple of prize tomatoes to the hostess in lieu of a bottle of wine.
When we talked about Beefsteaks, it had nothing to do with beef.
Office workers would leave brown bags of excess produce in the breakroom each morning. By nine, all the tomatoes would be gone and only ten or twenty pounds of zucchini would be remaining.
And then, of course, there were ‘Mater Sandwiches. They were a serious business. People could tell a lot about the way you were raised by how you preferred your ‘Mater Sandwich.
Directions For Making A Southern Tomato Sandwich:
When To Make One: Anytime is good. Now is better.
Bread: White bread is preferred, sliced as thinly as possible. (That’s because these sandwiches are VERY JUICY, and a thicker bread soaks up juice and becomes a gluey, doughy sludge in your mouth.) Wonder Bread and Sunbeam were popular brands, but my family always used Pepperidge Farm Very Thin White Bread. Now that I’m vegan, I usually have to carefully carve thin slices off an uncut white loaf, or (sadly!) resort to seedless melba thin rye bread. Which is actually not too bad. You might have to experiment a bit to find the bread that works for you, but remember – the bread only exists so you’re not eating tomatoes and mayonnaise with your bare fingers.
To Toast or Not To Toast? Southerners are firmly divided over this. Some speculate your preference depends on your age and whether or not you grew up having a toaster. My older relatives thought untoasted was the only way; my sister and I definitely prefer toasty!
Be aware that if you eat your sandwich untoasted, you may need to eat it over the kitchen sink.
Which, many say, is the only way to eat a ‘Mater Sandwich.
Mayonnaise: If you have never slathered before, now is the time! Hellman’s was the preferred brand. (Although a few people liked Miracle Whip or Duke’s – but then, a few people also wore white after Labor Day, bless their hearts.) Vegenaise is the perfect substitute for Hellman’s – neutral and creamy, with a hint of sweetness – and no cholesterol! You could also use Nayonaise or Mindful Mayo or Just Mayo – whatever floats your boat. Skip the flavors, though – chipotle, sriracha, garlic, pesto, etc. This is not the time nor the place.
Tomato: It. Must. Be. From. A. Garden. Or the farmer’s market. Or a CSA. (My tomatoes come from The Produce Box.) It absolutely cannot be a tasteless, mealy, store-bought tomato imitation. The tomato is the star of this sandwich, not a supporting player. If it’s not a ripe, juicy, summer tomato, the sandwich won’t work. Just put away your knife and cutting board and go heat up a can of soup.
If you do have a “real” tomato, cut the tomato into thick slices and arrange on the bread. Put as much tomato on the bread as you can without the slices overlapping – because overlapping is just gross. And the tomatoes will start to fall out of the sandwich. It’s ok to cut some slices in half moons or quarter moons to fit them on the bread. You may need to use multiple slices of tomato…
Or, sometimes, just one slice will do.
Note: Tomatoes should be stored OUTSIDE the refrigerator. If a tomato needs ripening, place it on a sunny windowsill. (It seems my great-aunts Martha and Mary always had a few tomatoes sunning themselves on the window ledge.) If the tomato starts to over-ripen, you can put it in the refrigerator, but be sure to take it back out a few hours to let it “warm up” before you make your sandwich.
Frugal Vegan Tip: If you buy fresh, local produce, you’ll find it stays fresh much longer!
Salt and Pepper: Don’t skip, or skimp, on the salt. And use freshly ground pepper.
NOTE: It is perfectly fine to slap the lid on that sucker and stop right here! If you want to take it a step or two further …
Lettuce: Lettuce is optional, and any kind will work as long as it’s crunchy. You want to stay away from very soft greens like spinach.
Bacon: Would it surprise you to know that we rarely ate bacon on our ‘Mater Sandwiches? When we did, it was just one slice or – at most! – two, crumbled into bits. Bacon was used as a condiment that served to enhance the earthy, sensual flavor of the tomato, not overpower it. Which is probably the reason I’ve never liked vegan BLTs made with tempeh bacon, eggplant bacon, coconut bacon, etc. The focus is no longer on the glorious tomato.
Happily, most brands of artificial bacon bits are “accidentally” vegan – like Bac-Os. If you want the taste of a BLT, a spoonful of these is all you need. Remember, the tomato is the star!
HALT. STOP RIGHT THERE. BACK AWAY FROM THE REFRIGERATOR. Lettuce and “bacon” are the only permissible add-ons. Don’t add “cheese,” sprouts, Vidalias, avocado, or (heaven help us) hummus. Those can all make a tasty sandwich, but the instant you start adding those, it ceases to be a Southern ‘Mater Sandwich and becomes a Vegetable Sandwich instead.
Cut It In Two: Slap the lid on your sandwich and, if you have tiny hands like me, cut it in half. Sandwiches always seem to taste better cut in half, anyway.
And To Wash It Down? Milk was the popular drink of choice – and these days, I find a tall, cold glass of unsweetened almond milk pairs perfectly with these sandwiches. Other popular choices in the Carolinas included Cheerwine (born in Salisbury, NC) or Pepsi (created in New Bern, NC). You didn’t want to drink a Coke, though – Coke marked you as being from “not from around these parts” – like, maybe, hifalutin’ Atlanta.
My dad has given me much invaluable advice over the years, but two bits that have served me especially well are, “Always say please and thank you,” and “Always take a napkin – or two.”
So! Thank you for visiting my blog and please feel free to stay a spell and look around. Oh, and you’d better take two napkins – you’ll need them with that sandwich!