Early Saturday morning, an unexpected item popped up on my laptop. Not an unusual phenomenon, but this one was different. It came from a New England travel site and featured an article titled, “The Tomato Sandwich-A New England Sumer Treat.”
What the heck?
Each word slapped me in the face, and I finally understood the definition of cultural appropriation.
“No, no, darlin’. That’s ours.” I said aloud as I starred at six red ripe Smith County beauties from Brenda’s Produce at the old farmers’ market. (I bought lady peas also, but that’s another matter).
The article went further, proclaiming that the tomato sandwich was one of six traditional New England sandwiches beloved by everyone.This is not a simple transgression, like sending a late birthday card or forgetting the name of your seventh-grade science teacher.
This is a biggie. This is wearing an Alabama tee shirt to an LSU football game or the Clarion Ledger confusing Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a banner headline. This is adding a handful of kale to the biscuit dough. This is treason!
I re-checked the origins of the tomato sandwich by leafing through a reliable source, The White Trash Cookbook, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s comedic cookbook printed in the late 1980’s. In addition to All-American Slum-Gullion and Jail House Chili, it contains a plethora of authentic old-time southern recipes. I found Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich on page 74. It includes brief instructions as well as “commence to eat over the kitchen sink while the juice runs down your elbows.” Thank you, Mr. Mickler, how well I know.
As a secondary source, I looked in Mama’s 1951 Joy of Cooking and found the tea party version of tomato sandwiches. Still good.
So, what to do with my tomatoes? I’ve joyfully said goodbye to pale, hot house grocery store tomatoes as hard and juiceless as tennis balls. The real thing is resting on my cutting board waiting me to pierce its shimmering skin and release an explosion of juice and seeds. After that, anything is possible – tomato jam, creole okra and tomatoes, tomato pickles, and stuffed tomatoes overflowing with shrimp salad, sauces for boundless pastas and lastly, one of my favorites, tomato soup. Simple, delicious and not requiring instructions from Julia Child.
To me, tomatoes tastes like summer, a picnic at the beach, Sunday lunch feast at Aunt Allie’s overloaded table.
It’s knowing where the tomatoes came from and who tilled the soil.
It’s a neighbor knocking on my door with a sack full of backyard bounty. “Here’s a few more,” she says. “I put in some green ones in case you need’em.”
It’s buying another jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise in case kin folks surprise you or an emergency late night snack is required.
I’ve always wondered why southern food has such a mystique. It’s not complicated, doesn’t require exotic ingredients and is easily learned in grandmama’s kitchen. We don’t need faddish cooking equipment because our aged skillets are pure gold and the old beaten-up roasting pan is a family treasure. Sometimes our food requires a fishing pole, a crawfish net, or a hunting license.
Maybe it’s just knowing which store offers the best yard birds, who smokes fall-off-the-bone ribs, or where to find homemade blueberry jam or bread and butter pickles.
It’s also realizing that nobody wants broccoli tacos or tofu pie on their Thanksgiving table.
So, New Englanders and other folks who wander by, you may sample out goodies. You’re allowed to slice juicy tomatoes and place them end to end on white bread. Be sure to slather on the mayonnaise. You can fry up a mess of Delta Pride catfish and dip the crisp ends in homemade tartar sauce.
But remember, we’re saving the bream for ourselves. We’ll explain the difference between field peas, purple hull peas and crowder peas, and tell you how to season them or add snap beans to the pot.
Listen carefully when a southern cook says, “I don’t measure anything, but I know when its right.” If you’re lucky, we’ll show you how to fill a black iron skillet with silver queen corn and fry it in bacon grease until it is sweet as apple pie. In return, I promise we will not have a clam bake on the beach in Biloxi or attempt to replicate a fresh lobster roll from a chewy frozen lobster tail. We will not tap a scraggly pecan tree and try to produce knock-off maple syrup.
So, don’t worry, we like Mississippi mud pie a lot better that Boston cream pie. And if you want a real tomato sandwich, come on down.