Averyell A. Kessler
Saturday Reprise –Last week, I was trapped. We all were, held prisoner by ice clogged streets, lethal, foot-long icicles, a dwindling or non-existent supply of water, iceberg temperatures and no way to get to the grocery store. In the midst of my captivity, what did I long for? Spring of course. Hours of sunshine and blooming azaleas, a soft breeze carrying the aroma of sweet olive. But more than anything, I longed for a tomato. A real one, a plump Smith County beauty grown Mississippi soil, and heavy on the vine. Didn’t even need white bread or a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. I would have sliced and eaten it with only a bit of salt. Can’t wait for tomato time. In honor of tomato glory, I choose to repost this piece.
Early Saturday morning, an unexpected item popped up on my laptop. Not an unusual phenomenon, but this one was different. It came from a New England travel site and featured an article titled, “The Tomato Sandwich-A New England Sumer Treat.” What the heck? Each word slapped me in the face, and I finally understood the definition of cultural appropriation. “No, no, darlin’. That’s ours.” I spoke aloud as I starred at six red ripe Smith County Beauties from Brenda’s Produce at the old farmers’ market. (I bought lady peas too, but that’s another matter). The article went further, compounding its offense and proclaiming that the tomato sandwich was one of six traditional New England sandwiches beloved by everyone.
This is not a simple transgression, like sending a late birthday card or forgetting the name of your seventh-grade science teacher. This is a biggie. This is wearing an Alabama tee shirt to a home game in Tiger Stadium or the Clarion Ledger confusing State and Ole Miss in a banner headline. This is adding a handful of kale to the biscuit dough. This is treason! I re-checked the origins of the tomato sandwich by leafing through a reliable source, The White Trash Cookbook, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s comedic cookbook printed in the late 1980’s. In addition to All-American Slum-Gullion and Jail House Chili, it contains a plethora of authentic old-time southern recipes. I found Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich on page 74. It includes brief instructions as well as “commence to eat over the kitchen sink while the juice runs down your elbows.” Thank you, Mr. Mickler, how well I know. As a secondary source, I looked in Mama’s 1951 Joy of Cooking and found the tea party version of tomato sandwiches. Still good.
So, what to do with my tomatoes? I had already said goodbye to pale, grocery store tomatoes as hard and juiceless as tennis balls. The real thing is resting on my cutting board waiting me to pierce its shimmering skin and release an explosion of juice and seeds. After that, anything is possible – tomato jam, creole okra and tomatoes, tomato pickles and pic, stuffed tomatoes overflowing with shrimp salad, sauces for boundless pastas and lastly, one of my favorites, our southern classis, a simple sandwich. Quick, delicious and not requiring instructions from Julia Child. To me, it tastes like summer, a picnic at the beach, Sunday lunch feast at Aunt Allie’s overloaded table. It’s knowing where the tomatoes came from and who tilled the soil. It’s a neighbor knocking on your door with a sack full of backyard bounty. “Here’s a few more,” she says. “I put in some green ones in case you need’em.” It’s buying another jar of Duke’s just in case kin folks surprise you or an emergency late night snack is required.
I’ve always wondered why southern food has such a mystique. It’s not complicated, doesn’t require exotic ingredients and is easily learned in grandmama’s kitchen. We don’t need faddish cooking equipment because our aged skillets are pure gold and the old beaten-up roasting pan is a family treasure. Sometimes our food requires a fishing pole, a crawfish net, or a hunting license. Maybe it’s just knowing which store offers the best yard birds, who smokes fall-off-the-bone ribs, or where to find homemade blueberry jam and bread and butter pickles. It’s also realizing that nobody wants broccoli tacos or tofu pie on their Thanksgiving table.
So, New Englanders and other folks who wander by, you may sample out goodies. You’re allowed to slice juicy tomatoes and place them end to end of white bread. Be sure to slather on the mayonnaise. You can fry up a mess of Delta Pride catfish and dip the crisp ends in homemade tartar sauce. But remember, we’re saving the bream for ourselves. We’ll explain the difference between field peas, purple hull peas and crowder peas, and tell you how to season them or add snap beans to the pot. Listen carefully when a southern cook says, “I don’t have a recipe, but I know when its right.” If you’re lucky, we’ll show you how to fill a black iron skillet with silver queen corn and fry it in bacon grease until it’s sweet as apple pie. In return, I promise we will not have a clam bake on the beach in Biloxi or attempt to replicate a fresh lobster roll from a chewy frozen lobster tail. We will not tap a scraggly pecan tree and try to produce knock-off maple syrup. So, don’t worry, we like Mississippi mud pie a lot better that Boston cream pie. And if you want a real tomato sandwich, come on down.