An Ode to Summer Tomatoes

From a salad piled high with heirlooms to a charred relish, there's no match for the South's sun ripened tomatoes.

Summer Tomatoes
Photo: Alison Miksch

A line from Steel Magnolias might tell you that I don't meet the definition of a Southern lady. I don't grow tomatoes.

Sorry, Ouiser. I'm getting older, and I make my own rules.

My avoidance is not a lack of tomato love. It's the opposite: I adore them too much to subject them to my indifferent skills as a gardener. When I was young and foolish, I tried valiantly to grow juicy tomatoes and eventually learned a bitter lesson: The greatest by-product of the Southern summer is a terrible thing to waste on blossom end rot, uneven watering, and squirrel battles.

Instead, I saved my money for my favorite tomato tables at the local farmers' market. I'd rather pay a farmer to grow a great tomato and spend my time making good use of their labors. I have plenty of those good uses, from the endless bags of roasted tomato sauce I tuck in my freezer to the summer-long parade of Caprese salads and tomato gratins to those tomato slices buried under browned mozzarella on homemade pizza dough.

Out of all those, though, I'd like to suggest that the highest achievement of the summer is no recipe at all. It's the tomato sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise, tomato slices, salt, and pepper.

It sounds simple, but the subject is fraught with controversy, with every step leading to argument. Bread choice. Mayonnaise loyalty. Lack of lettuce and bacon. And heaven help you if you equate the plain tomato sandwich with Southernness. People will react like you hurled rotten tomatoes at Fort Sumter.

For once, let's put aside our invectives and consider the exquisiteness that is the tomato sandwich.

A friend recently told me about her perfect tomato sandwich moment—a day at the beach when she was 13, stumbling inside in the middle of the afternoon, salty, oily, and sweaty; starving as only a teenager can be after a day plunging through the waves.

Spying a ripe tomato in the kitchen, she grabbed her father's favorite white bread so squishy you could barely handle it
without thumb prints. She sliced the tomato, smeared Duke's mayonnaise, and seasoned with salt and pepper. That first bite stays with her 30 years later, the moment by which all tomato moments are measured.

Listening to her, I recalled a moment of my own 13-year-old hunger, when I was too empty even to consider the bread and mayonnaise. I grabbed a ripe tomato from my mother's kitchen windowsill and prepared to eat it like the love apple of its name.

I already knew enough to know that salt is absolutely required. When I sprinkled it on the skin, though, it just bounced off. I solved my problem by licking the tomato so just enough salt would stick until I could bite through the skin.

I still remember the delight: sweet enhanced by salt, acidity filling my mouth, juice running down my arm. I ate it bite by bite, pausing only to shake a little more salt on the wet, exposed flesh.

Tomato love, born in each of us however we come to it.

Blossom end rot, drought, and squirrels be damned, Ouiser. Nothing comes between me and a summer full of tomatoes.

Get our favorite summer tomato recipes. See our favorite quotes from Steel Magnolias.

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