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A Page from the Southern Rulebook on Tomato Sandwiches

Songwriter Guy Clark famously said, “There’s two things that money can’t buy — that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

If you’re not from the South, you may not realize it’s possible to make a meal out of tomatoes. Any meal. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, supper … And what Guy Clark didn’t say was when you combine true love (i.e. mayo) and homegrown tomatoes, they become the seasonal delicacy that is the tomato sandwich.

This lowly menu item — feeding everyone from the first ladies to PTA moms to the trailer park babysitter — is an overlooked cultural touchstone. Fried green tomatoes have a movie named after them. BLTs are on every deli menu. The only pop culture figure giving tomato sandwiches their due is the Harriet the Spy.

Outside of Harriet’s world, tomato sandwiches are more of an oral tradition. The right and proper way to make this simple specialty won’t be found in a cookbook. It’s something Southern parents and grandparents just know. But for those growing up without that parental example, we offer this primer from the Southern rulebook on tomato sandwiches. We don’t enforce the rules or judge them, we just pass them along. And if you ask any Southern rebel, he’ll say rules are made to be broken.

The Proper Way to Make a Tomato Sandwich

  • white bread
  • sliced tomatoes — grown in your backyard, still warm from the sun
  • prepared mayonnaise — Hellmann’s or Duke’s
  • salt and pepper to taste

Smear the mayo on the bread, add tomatoes and seasonings. Seal the deal with another mayo-gobbed slice of bread. Eat over the sink or standing outside. If executed correctly, the juice from the sandwich will run down your chin and hands just like a ripe peach. Plates are for pansies. This is not a white-tablecloth event. This is a messy-handed affair of the heart. It’s life — sweet, tangy and ready to stain your shirt, but you won’t regret a second because it will be well-lived. Let the rapture of flavors — acidic tomatoes, vevelty mayo, soft bread, salty salt — transport you to heaven on earth. It is impossible to oversell tomato sandwiches, y’all. When they’re right, they will live up to this standard.

The Wrong Ways to Make a Tomato Sandwich:
1. A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl

  • sliced tomatoes
  • mayonnaise
  • thick slices of cheddar cheese
  • dill pickles
  • salt and pepper

As a rebellious preteen, I layered all of this between two mayo-heavy slices of bread. This dish existed in sandwich purgatory. Almost there, but not quite right. As a 32-year-old, divorced mother of three, I wonder where my life got off track. You could make the argument that it was here.

2. The Whipping Post

  • sliced tomatoes
  • white bread
  • Miracle Whip

The wang of Miracle Whip throws off the balance of nature. The sun is out but rain is falling from the sky. The heavens are crying. The devil is beating his wife.

3. Don’t Bring Fire Into This:

  • white bread, toasted
  • sliced tomatoes
  • prepared mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper to taste

The toast may seem like a good idea, but the bread should absorb the juices of the tomato. If you toast the bread, they will escape before it’s time, and your sandwich has lost its life force. It’s just all wrong.

Does this tomato sandwich primer seem a little dramatic? It probably is, but we can’t help it. It’s a subject worthy of passionate diatribes. If you’d like to weigh in, tell us in the comments how YOU eat tomato sandwiches at home.

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