Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tomato Sandwiches: Southern or Universal?

Today for lunch, I assembled a simple tomato sandwich. Something I've done hundreds (or thousands) of times in my life, almost always during summer. Two slices of white bread: check. Several slices of a juicy tomato (grown by family or friends): check. Duke's mayonnaise: check. Salt and pepper: check.

Eat me! (On a sandwich, of course.)

To me, tomato sandwiches are a ubiquitous part of Southern summer life. Consumption of these sandwiches is widespread--almost everyone down here eats them. Truly. You don't have to describe to another Southerner what a tomato sandwich is, or explain to them that, yes, it's still delicious even though it doesn't have meat, cheese, butter or any of the other ingredients that usually make food worth eating. In the South, it's never assumed that tomato sandwiches are vegetarian specialties or some kind of poor man's meal for those barely scraping by. (Although, a tomato sandwich could very easily suffice in either of those situations.) No, Southerners know tomato sandwiches.

But just because Southerners eat--and appreciate--tomato sandwiches often, does that mean the humble sandwich actually falls into the category of Southern food? After all, they do have tomatoes in other parts of the country (and world). And they have bread. And salt and pepper.  Of course, they don't all have Duke's, which is sad for them; but most places have passable versions of mayonnaise.

The only acceptable mayo for a Southern tomato sandwich.

This is something I often think about when I'm enjoying a juicy tomato (or, 'mater) sandwich. And, it turns out, I'm not the only one. This weekend, I read Southern Heirlooms in Our State magazine. The author of the article, Scott Huler, asks the very same question. He starts with the premise that tomato sandwiches are universal to some degree; however, his ultimate conclusion--and how he gets there--provides for a very insightful look at how important tomato sandwiches are to the Southern summer experience:
"So, a homegrown crop with a long growing season, consumed constantly by people used to doing for themselves, and a sandwich that's a quick and convenient way to eat it. With a native condiment that somehow makes it special. Maybe the tomato sandwich, Southern style, does have a claim to iconic status."
Huler also points out how people in this region--specifically his wife--talk about tomato sandwiches in a particularly Southern way. And it occurs to me that I've never heard anyone outside the South mention a tomato sandwich ... ever.  So, they may (possibly) eat them, but it's not something you hear them go on about or describe with delight and sentimentality. But Southerners talk about tomato sandwiches--like all of the other foods we love--a lot. You can't shut us up about them. Heck, Rebecca Wells even found a way to work them into one of her novels:
"We'd go to Washington, D.C., where the President and Mrs. Roosevelt would be waiting, begging me to come have tomato sandwiches with the crust cut off." ~Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood
Even the sassy characters of Southern literature love tomato sandwiches.

So, you decide. Tomato sandwiches: Southern or universal?

Clearly, this is a yankee tomato sandwich.


Anonymous said...

I think they are absolutely Southern. I like mine with a tiny pinch of sugar and a slice of cheese, in addition to mayo, salt and pepper. One of my Aunts likes to put hers in the fridge and let the white bread get all soggy before she eats it. I add the cheese, in part, to keep mine from getting too soggy. Plus, it's cheese!


Jenn said...

I think that will qualify, Traci :-)