How to Eat Tomatoes (or Why Food Tastes Good)

Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual "Tomatina" (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed - everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story - but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)
Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual “Tomatina” (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed – everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story – but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)

It’s a Southern thing and a summer thing. When the Big Boy tomatoes are so ripe they drip off the vines in huge, red globes, you pick ‘em. Leave them out on the counter. God forbid, don’t refrigerate them; it saps the flavor. They sit for maybe a day until you get some nice white bread at the store. Not artisan or crusty, but just a plain simple loaf, not too soft. But this isn’t life or death, because you’re going to toast that bread anyway. Slice the tomatoes with a long serrated knife, not too thick and not too thin. There will be lots of juice on the cutting board so protect your slices from the expanding puddle because you don’t want soggy bread. No.

Now, toast two slices of bread so they’re suntan kissed and not too crispy. Crispy in a nice way so you have something to hold onto. Get the mayo from the fridge. Not light mayo, or fat-free, or Miracle Whip. God no. Real mayo. Make it yourself if you have to (just egg yolks, oil and a little lemon juice and water and you’re done). In the fridge at my mom’s house there is a lone jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. It’s a brand from her childhood in North Carolina and is perfect for recreating the best sandwich ever. So use Duke’s. Or use homemade. Or use Hellman’s. Slather it on, not too thick or thin. More than a schmear but less than a dollop. You should be able to make small waves back and forth across the bread with your knife, small waves in your poor man’s hollandaise.

Get those tomato slices. They’re ready to go on your bread on one side. One side only. Two sides and you have a mess and don’t know which side to flip first. Put the slices on, overlapping slightly, kissing each other’s sides. Cover your bread slice with them. Don’t skimp but give them some breathing room. Don’t crowd. Maybe you fit three slices neatly. Maybe four, if you’re lucky. Overload and you ruin the ratio. Underload and you’re eating toast.

Now this next step is important and I don’t care about your blood pressure or what the news says or what your doc told you. You already have that real rich mayo on the bread, so let it go. Get a pepper mill and some Kosher salt, flaked and ready to melt. Crack the pepper over your tomatoes in repose and sprinkle a good pinch, a full pinch, a full teaspoon on those red juicy-sweet circles. You can almost never put too much salt because the sweet tomatoes of summer are always sweeter than you think they’ll be and just like baking, you need salt to balance it all out against your taste buds. You do. Believe me. Don’t be afraid and pile it on, evenly across. When it melts into the room temperature slices, you’re ready. Fold the empty bread slice on top of your seasoned tomato half and press lightly to firm the flavors together. The unguent mayo and briny, sharp spice against sweet sunshine of tomatoes and toasted yeastiness of bread. Take your serrated knife, hold down the sandwich and cut a neat swath through it all to make two halves. Find an old white plate or your grandma’s china and place your lunch on it.

You can get fancy with a little green lettuce leaf on there or a tiny sliver of sweet Vidalia onion. But I say no, eat it now as is. It takes practice but if you’ve toasted the bread right, and put mayo on the smoothed, even way, and loaded just enough tomato onto the whole thing—it will be perfect and not squeeze out to attack you like some sandwiches. The juices will hold, the mayo an oily shield reinforced by firm toast, and the tomatoes and their juices caught in between for your benefit. Enjoy. Eat that other half and I dare you not to go out to your garden or back porch again and pick another Big Boy and slice him up for a second round. These are addictive.

I hear some people eat summer tomatoes like apples, they’re so sweet. I’ve never. But I will slice them and put them on top of anything that will take them. Or a salad. Not the leafy kind. Slice that tomato and slice those sweet Vidalias and a crisp watery cucumber. Same sizes if you can. Thin, thin slivers of onion. No one likes to eat a stinging raw chunk of onion. Find a bowl big enough to use a hand or spoon to mix without making a mess. You’re gonna use that bowl to serve from so make sure it’s pretty enough for the table. Or don’t. No one will care once they start eating. Pile in your slices and sprinkle them with Kosher salt, liberally. Liberal, left and left again. Over further to the left. Don’t be stingy. And pepper again.

Now in your pantry somewhere might be a very old bottle of vinegar: apple cider, red wine, sherry wine, balsamic. Maybe you have rice wine vinegar. Your luck if you do! Use it finally. In a separate small bowl, mix some vinegar and plain veggie oil (a tablespoon or so) and sugar. Yes, sugar. White and granulated. Not a ton and not Splenda. No honey or maple syrup. You just want sweetness, not flavor. Mix together so they dissolve and combine, emulsify. Pour that over the tomatoes, onions, and cukes. Toss ‘em up together and very important, let them sit. Don’t fool with it and don’t serve it right away. They need to marinate and mingle or else you just get each thing, alone together and nothing special. Pop it in the fridge if you want, for at least an hour or so. But please, take it out at least another hour before you eat. Room temperature is how foods are meant to be eaten if you really want to taste them. This “salad” is the perfect side dish for barbecued chicken or burgers or steak or hot dog. And maybe the kids will eat it. Tell them there’s sugar in it; that might work.

Then go back outside and pick more Big Boys and see if you can find new small, yellow flowers because you’re gonna need more tomatoes. Stat. A few Big Boys could make a very good tomato pie. Or a huge batch of Sunday sauce. Or another sandwich. Or be eaten out of hand. I hear some people do the same with sweet Vidalias.

Maybe that’s a Southern thing, like black-eyed peas and collard greens and pig on New Year’s Day for luck. Or like succotash. Succotash. I love that word. It’s native and old colonial. It’s part sweet corn kernels, other veggies optional, and of course, lima beans. You have to have lima beans. And maybe lard. I envision an old Virginia wife at her deep cooking fireplace with an iron pot hanging over the coals and a wise Native American woman with kind, calloused hands offering her these things: corn, shell beans. The lady’s garden is string beans from England and carrots. She makes do and we enjoy succotash. Corn kernels broken off the cob. Battered. Suffering. Which it turns out, after all, is not just a Southern thing.