Rick Bragg Sets The Record Straight On What Makes The Best Tomato Sandwich

Some people just don't know what's good.

Rick Bragg Making Tomato Sandwich
Photo: John Cuneo

Well, they finally made me mad.

I don't mind when they tell me that the way I talk is adorable. I don't mind when they tell me, for the hundredth time, "That's not the way we do it up North." I don't even mind when they say our football teams are overrated, compared to Michigan and Notre Dame, which hasn't won a National Championship since practically the Hoover administration.

But when they start running down the tomato sandwich, that's all I can take. It never fails. At a talk or signing somewhere in the frozen tundra, someone will ask what we eat "down there," like I'm going to answer "dirt" or "bugs."

"A good tomato sandwich," I say.

tomato sandwich halves stacked on top of one another
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

"Tomato and what?" they always say.

"Just tomato, mayo, salt, and pepper, on white bread," I always say.

"Yuck," they always say.

This should be a test for where the South begins. "Yuck" should tell us we have strayed too far toward the ice cap and should make a U-turn and not slow down until we see Spanish moss.

"I could understand," they say, "if you had some fresh romaine and a slice of good cheese and maybe some nice ham or turkey, maybe on pumpernickel."

"No," I say, "just tomato."

"Ugh," they say, which is even more insulting than "yuck."

I told this to Mama. "Some people," she said, "don't know what's good."

I grew up carrying tomato sandwiches in a paper sack to work or to the river to fish, wrapped in wax paper or in wrinkled, twice-used aluminum foil, which we treated like a precious metal. I guess because it was shiny.

The recipe was the same. Slather one thick slice of good white bread with real mayonnaise, and top with one or two thick slices of fresh tomato (late-summer ones are best) and salt and black pepper to taste—though the more pepper, the better. Top with another slice of white bread, slathered slightly less. It should not be soggy but still juicy in the middle.

"Yuck," they say.

There are things that seem delicious in your memory, but when you try to re-create them decades later, the taste is not what you believed, the way an old photograph will fade in time. Nostalgia will trick you like that. Is it really the food, or the sun on your crew cut, or the mud between your toes? I don't know. But it's good enough.

I shouldn't care what they think, of course, but I fear they've convinced our children there's something wrong with us because we like these things. I once told a group of mostly Southern college students what I like to eat as a guilty pleasure. "A tomato sandwich, a pile of barbecue potato chips, and a frosty glass of whole milk," I said. "Yuck," they said. "Shut up," I said, silently reminding myself to give a C- to them all.

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