What I am going to say may cause some discomfort. But I urge you to hear me out, for in the end I bring a message of joy.
I hope you won’t begrudge my first premise, which is that Southerners, proud of a regional culture with roots as deep as the red clay, have something of a propensity to claim things. It’s hard to deny this, right? Whether it’s porches or storytelling, acoustic music or the land itself, Southerners take pride in not only their traditions, but also the contributions of those traditions to the culture at large — and can even, on occasion, stretch those contributions a tad. For example, I’m almost sure there are writers outside the South, although once your region has produced William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Harper Lee and Lee Smith, you can be forgiven for being a bit self-congratulatory.
Southerners can be especially proprietary about food. Whether it’s grits or okra or collard greens or hard-boiled eggs or anything else on an almost numberless list, Southerners say it belongs, somehow, exclusively to the South. Which makes it perhaps all the more an affront that I must, after thoroughly researching the topic, make the following statement:
The tomato sandwich is not a Southern food.
Yes, I know: the tomato sandwich. Two pieces of white bread: Merita, say, or Wonder; maybe Bunny, if you’re from Tennessee. Duke’s mayonnaise — and only Duke’s mayonnaise, about which more later. A thick slice of tomato, dripping oozy goodness. A little salt and pepper, if you like.
What I’m saying is that it’s not a Southern thing at all, that tomato sandwich. As my own community-supported agriculture farmer Tom Kumpf says, “That’s not a Southern classic. That’s a summer classic.” Kumpf lives — and grows tomatoes, among other crops — on his Double T Farm in Garner, south of Raleigh. In fact, the tomato is why Kumpf’s farm exists. “What really got me going in the garden was wanting to eat my own tomatoes,” he says. And who can blame him? A fresh-picked tomato, still radiating the sunshine that grew it? That’s heaven on earth.
Kumpf feels it. He grows a half-dozen or more varieties of tomatoes every year, for himself and his customers. A while back, on a chilly and damp spring day when the very idea of a tomato sandwich was sustaining — “it’s the one thing that keeps your sanity intact” — he showed me through his hoop greenhouse. And indeed, as he stood on the marshy ground and peeled back covers to reveal rows of little plants in trays, each seemed to be the seed of a summer day, the little, almost-hand-shaped, leaves intimations of gigantic wobbly vines to come, leaning on cages to support ripening fruit. He showed me the tiny seedlings of his ‘sun golds’, his ‘viva Italia’ ‘romas’, and his ‘Burpee early picks’. “This makes a really good, like, eight-ounce tomato,” he says. “Everybody wants a slicing tomato.” And when he keeps them for himself, he slices his.
But not for sandwiches.
“Every year when I do heirlooms, I take a picture of all the different varieties sliced up on a plate,” he says. Not exactly a tomato sandwich. Then again, Tom grew up near Buffalo, New York, so if you want to discount his opinion, there’s your opening.
Kumpf sent me to Craig LeHoullier, the Raleigh tomato maven whose website, NCTomatoman.com, casts a long shadow on the North Carolina heirloom tomato landscape. Among his accomplishments is the popularization of the highly sandwich-friendly ‘Cherokee purple’ tomato, famed for the nice meatiness that holds a tomato sandwich together. He lived all over the country, and he prefers his tomatoes in slices on grilled cheese sandwiches.
Whatever else goes on a sandwich, LeHoullier says, “the tomato is critical.” As an heirloom tomato guy, he strongly believes a good sandwich needs an heirloom tomato. “You go to the farmers market,” he says, of hybrid tomatoes, “and you see piles of the big, red, perfectly round ones. If you tossed them at someone with any kind of speed, you’d probably injure them for life.” (Kumpf, by the way, is no heirloom snob. “The term ‘hybrid vigor’ is accurate,” he says, proudly admitting that he grew up eating the infelicitously named ‘Heinz-1350’.) The favorite heirlooms of the Carolinas, both Kumpf and LeHoullier say, are the ‘Cherokee purple’ and especially the ‘German Johnson’, a North Carolina native cultivar that’s a great big beefsteak, which basically means it slices well.
LeHoullier also has no loyalty to the store-bought white bread of the classic sandwich, preferring a nice ciabatta or farm bread. And then he utters the greatest apostasy of all. “I don’t eat mayonnaise,” he says. “I’ve probably never eaten what is called the great Southern tomato sandwich.”
That sandwich, if it exists, has Duke’s mayonnaise on it. “On both sides,” says Erin Corning, Duke’s associate brand manager. “Because if it’s not dripping down your chin while you’re eating it over the sink, it doesn’t count.”
The tomato sandwich is Duke’s signature recipe, “the quintessential meal that Duke’s graces,” Corning says — above all, because “it doesn’t require a whole lot of instruction.” Bread, tomato, mayonnaise. And she can (and does) go into significant detail about mayonnaise ingredients. Duke’s gets its tartness by using no sugar, for example. Kumpf and LeHoullier, too, talk for hours about things like the balance of acid and sweet in a tomato, explaining the difference between a red and a pink, bringing up names that expose the fancies dreamed up for paint colors as the frauds they are. You might imagine painting your bedroom ‘salmon mousse’ or ‘Savannah clay,’ but a tomato variety named ‘Eva Purple Ball’? Or, my favorite, ‘Debbie’ (it’s a red-orange beefsteak)? Now that’s putting a name on something.
But as for ingredients, if you’re looking past tomato, mayonnaise, bread, you’re overthinking the tomato sandwich. For even there, as good as Duke’s mayonnaise is, I am not prepared to yield that a local type of mayonnaise stakes an entire sandwich to a region, or that putting a piece of mozzarella or some basil on it renders it somehow inauthentic. I watched my mother make her tomato sandwiches with Miracle Whip (she tells me she’s switched to Hellmann’s now) in northeastern Ohio; you make them with Duke’s on your Carolina front porch. How does that make the tomato sandwich a Southern food? It’s like the South claiming bread, or the clothesline, or elbows. True, where would we be without them, but it seems to me the Union soldiers probably appreciated them as much as the boys in gray.
And if my own mother is not proof enough, the library gives you unimpeachable evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of the tomato sandwich. No less a literary personage than Harriet the Spy took a tomato sandwich to school every day for five years — “her mouth watered at the memory of the mayonnaise,” Louise Fitzhugh tells us. And Harriet, mind you, lived on the upper East Side. That’s not even the south of Manhattan.
Speaking of my mother, by the way, and where I watched her slap the Miracle Whip on the tomato sandwiches of my youth — you will already have discerned that I am Not From Around Here. But I beg you — do not allow that fact to cause you to dismiss my inquiries. If you prick me, I may not bleed vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but I have lived in North Carolina since 1992. I have two native Tar Heel children. I married a native Tar Heel girl. I have strong opinions on NASCAR racing (pro), grits (con), and ACC basketball rivalries (let’s just not start). I know I’ll never be a true Southerner, but I’ve been here two decades, and I mean to stay.
Much like the tomato itself. Leaving out the trumped-up controversy over whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable (biologically, it’s obviously a fruit; linguistically it’s both, depending on when and how you eat it — on a tomato sandwich, it’s a vegetable), the tomato has the proud history of any immigrant. It originated in South America, then made its way north through Native American routes as far as Mexico, where the Aztec cultivated it, calling it “xitomatl.” Its passage to the American South took it through Europe, after Cortes brought some back from Mexico. Europeans called it “golden apple,” because the first ones they saw were gold. The Europeans cultivated them starting in the 1540s, and the first reference to them in the New World came in 1710, when William Salmon published an English guide describing tomatoes he had seen in Carolina. From there, it spread throughout the country. Tales of terror about tomatoes as poisonous plants are mostly that — tall tales; American cookbooks and almanacs as early as the mid-1700s describe managing and consuming tomatoes.
Fruit of plenty
So my point could not be more thoroughly made: The tomato sandwich is a summer, not a Southern, food. It belongs to the world, not the South. If Southerners think it’s theirs, they are wrong. My conclusion is simple, well supported, and straightforward.
So, of course, cue backpedaling.
Once I had drawn my conclusions, I did what I usually do and sat down to discuss them with my wife, June Spence. Raleigh native, lover of food and all good things, June spoke about tomatoes and tomato sandwiches in a way that was, for lack of a better word, Southern.
She gave the same recipe as everyone else: Duke’s mayonnaise, a thick slice of tomato, and white bread, although she admitted that she uses whole wheat nowadays. And June herself questioned the sandwich’s status: “I don’t think it’s Southern,” she says. Anyhow, less Southern than rural: “It’s just what you get when you’ve got a lot of people growing tomatoes in their gardens.”
Like in … the South?
“It’s because you’re growing plenty, you’ve got a bunch of them,” she says. “One thing we always had in the summer as a side dish was sliced up tomatoes with salt and pepper on them. It was just the abundance.” In a place like the South, where the growing season starts earlier and lasts longer.
“My grandmother just had rows and rows of them,” June went on. Her grandmother lived in the tiny Harnett County town of Angier. “As soon as they were ripe and as long as the plants lasted, there would always be a windowsill-full. And you’d always get sent home with them.”
And one more thing. Maybe up North, where you’ve got lots of Italian immigrants and a shorter growing season, you could cook tomatoes down and save them as sauce. Not June’s grandmothers: “I don’t remember either of them canning tomatoes, which you can do.
“But you don’t cook a fresh tomato,” she says. “A fresh tomato is meant to be eaten raw.”
Perhaps on … you get the idea.
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. In fact, maybe that tomato sandwich and I have a few things in common. Like me, the tomato showed up here in the South as an immigrant — and stayed. In fact, it’s gone all over the world, but somehow it seems to have found a special place for itself here, prospered, made a home.
Which describes the modern South right down to the kudzu, yes? A place of simple things with long stories, where immigrants bring new ingredients and make them work, changing them but leaving them still somehow themselves, perhaps even more themselves for the newness. Grandma, after all, rarely made shrimp and grits, but nobody says grits are ruined now.
So maybe we can say about the tomato sandwich that it started off rural and made its way into the cities, started out Southern and made its way elsewhere, started out classic and absorbed change, from white bread to wheat, from Duke’s to Miracle Whip to Hellmann’s. It started out simple and grew complex.
Or maybe we say this: The tomato sandwich is as Southern as … as Southern as … as Southern as anything else.
Tar Heel Tomatoes
However tenuous the South’s authorship of the tomato sandwich may be, North Carolina proudly claims a few native species of the summer staple. You’ll find most varieties at farmers markets and produce stands.
Native to North Carolina and Virginia, this heirloom tomato can be found at: Bee Log Farm and Nursery in Burnsville; Appalachian Seeds Farm and Nursery in Asheville; and at most farmers markets throughout the state.
Developed by Dr. Randy Gardner through North Carolina State University in the 1980s to be adaptive to production in North Carolina, the mountain series includes several varieties popular for their flavor and firmness, including ‘pride’, ‘gold’, and ‘delight’.
In 1990, heirloom enthusiast Craig LeHoullier got some seeds in the mail with a note: “Here is a purple tomato that the Cherokee Indians gave my family 100 years ago.” He grew the tomatoes, loved them, named the variety ‘Cherokee purple’, and sent the seeds to seed companies. Today, the variety is celebrated for its sweetness.
Scott Huler’s articles appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and Backpacker and Fortune magazines. He has written several books, including his most recent, On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work. He serves as the 2011 Piedmont Laureate and lives in Raleigh with his wife and two children.