Food & Drink

'Mater madness

Consider the tomato sandwich.

It's an excellent example of the maxim that the simplest ingredients yield the highest reward: Bread. Mayonnaise. Tomato. Salt. Pepper.

You can debate each element – which bread, which mayonnaise, which tomato. But add anything more and you've gone too far.

You may be able to buy a tomato in January, but you can achieve tomato sandwich greatness only in the months of tomato perfection. Earlier than July or later than September and you should forget it – eat grilled cheese.

Of all the foods that define Southernness, the tomato sandwich may be right up there with grits as the true dividing line. Molly Mullen can tell you that. A native of Charlotte who works at Wells Fargo, Mullen celebrated the Fourth of July the best way she knew how. She invited a couple of dozen friends for her first annual Tomato Sandwich Social. She emphasizes “first annual” – it will return, she says.

She went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market a week in advance, to make sure the tomatoes were at their peak for the party. She bought $65 worth of eight or nine kinds. “We had Mr. Stripeys, Purple Cherokee, all kinds of heirlooms, the regular beefsteaks.”

She sliced them up, put out bread and mayonnaise – Duke's for the purists, Hellman's for everyone else. Friends brought cold salads and appetizers, and Mullen threw in 4 pounds of bacon for those who insist.

At first, she discovered, the people who were not from around here didn't get the concept. Those from other regions wanted toasted bread, lettuce and bacon.

“They wanted club sandwiches,” she says. “They did not understand the concept of the white bread, tomato, salt and pepper.” (We won't tell you how they reacted to the fried green tomatoes.)

But Mullen cajoled and fellow Southerners instructed. The two sides eventually came together.

“Those Yankees here are like, ‘A tomato sandwich – what else do you put on it?' I say you have not experienced the true treasure of life if you haven't had a tomato sandwich.”

The newcomers who tried it came around, she said. They went through all the bacon, all the tomatoes, three loaves of white bread and one of ciabatta. And everyone is still talking about it, she says.

Summer is long and the tomatoes are plentiful. So we'll concede that you might get your fill. We've included recipes for a couple of variations on the tomato sandwich. But before you make them, consider the wise words of Molly Mullen:

“Sometimes, the simplest things in life, you think you have to make it better. And you really don't with a tomato sandwich.”