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A war of tastes ... over a tomato sandwich?

It all seemed so peaceful ... Bread. Mayonnaise. Tomato.

Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

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  • 'Mater madness: The story that set off the furor
  • 1. Start with an old-fashioned, plain, white bread. Merita is acceptable, although she prefers Bunny Bread.

    2. Spread the bread with mayonnaise. No choice there: “It has to be Duke's.”

    3. Choose your tomato. “I will not discriminate because I will eat them all. The heirlooms (older tomato varieties) taste so different. They're so much richer. But I love a good beefsteak. The Mr. Stripeys, you can only get ‘em for a couple of weeks, but those are so sweet and so colorful. Anything red and you're ready to go.”

    4. Slice the tomato. “If you can get a tomato that is the circumference of the bread, that's the epitome. But sometimes the bigger aren't always the better. I will put three slices on a sandwich (if the smaller tomato is better). But the best is if you can get one big slice of tomato on the bread.”

    5. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with bread.

  • Adapted from “Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express” (Simon & Schuster, $26). Bittman's recipes in this book are very loose directions with no measurements. These are our estimates, but feel free to use more or less or anything as needed.

    1/4 cup blue cheese

    About 1 tablespoon cream cheese

    1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives

    1/2 to 1 teaspoon milk

    2 slices good-quality, crusty bread

    2 to 3 slices ripe, red tomato

    Salt and pepper to taste

    1/2 to 1 tablespoon butter

    MASH blue cheese, cream cheese and chives with just enough milk to make it spreadable. Smear a thin layer on each slice of bread. Top with tomato slices, salt and pepper and put bread together to make a sandwich.

    HEAT skillet and add butter. Swirl around pan until melted and pan is coated. Place sandwich in skillet and cook a couple of minutes, until toasted on one side. Press down sandwich gently with a spatula and turn. Cook until golden and gooey.

    CUT on diagonal and serve hot. (If you're making more than one, assemble them on a baking sheet, brush with melted butter and broil on both sides.).

Ever go over a yellow jacket nest with your lawn mower? You don't mean to do it, you're just cutting the grass.

Next thing you know, stinging darts with wings are boiling out of the ground with the force of a geyser.

When it comes to food debates, sometimes I get to be the lawn mower. I'll leave it to you to decide who's a yellow jacket.

The funny thing is, the more innocent the food, the more heat is generated.

This time, it was tomato sandwiches. That's about as simple as recipes and summer pleasures get: Two slices of bread. Mayonnaise. A slice or three of perfectly ripe tomato. Salt and pepper.

Put them together, stand back and watch the nest erupt.

Our story last week on tomato sandwiches logged more online comments, e-mails and phone calls than almost any food story I've written.

Tomato sandwiches became the day's most viewed story on our Web site. Sadly, it also hit another record: the most number of comments I've had to report for abuse. Really, people?

I was expecting some eruptions. I was even curious about which parts would generate the most heat: mayonnaise choice, bread choice, the issue of peeling or not peeling the tomato. (Personally, I don't peel. When the tomatoes are good and ripe, why waste a drip of tomatoey goodness? Still, if you want to peel, I'll defend your right to take up a paring knife.)

But when I was working on the story and I interviewed a Charlotte woman who had had a tomato sandwich party, I knew there would be trouble. Several times, she said “the Y word.”

The Y word (I'll whisper it carefully: “Yankee”) is the third rail of regional culture. It's loaded with more baggage than a debutante field trip.

Say that something is Southern and someone will immediately howl in protest that they're from one of the 36 other states (or 39, depending on how you count them), they ate that all the time and they can't imagine why you're restaging the Civil War.

At the same time, someone from one of the 14 or 11 Southern states (depending on how you count them) is grabbing their own verbal musket, swearing allegiance to whatever food it is, and trotting out the tired line about “don't tell us how you did it up North.”

This attitude cuts both ways. Mention pizza, cheese steaks, Buffalo wings, lobster rolls or hamburgers and pretty much the same thing will happen.

When people claim a regional affinity for a particular food, I don't think it's about the food at all. It's about the lifestyle, and the markers you use to identify yourself.

But I also wonder why we interpret that as a hostile act. Usually, when someone tells me about a food they hold dear, they're not saying “No one else can eat this.” They're saying, “This is so great – I have to share.”

Wouldn't it be great if we could take it in that spirit? Then, maybe, we could eat our tomatoes instead of throw them.

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