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.