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LIBBY WIERSEMA: Dog days of summer call for cool tomato sandwiches
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LIBBY WIERSEMA: Dog days of summer call for cool tomato sandwiches

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I am practically living off tomato sandwiches right now. My stove and oven have entered hibernation, so while they take a summertime snooze, I’m whipping out the Wonder bread and slicing, slathering and slapping together those yummy sammies.

Meaty, juicy homegrown tomatoes beg for such treatment. Not that I am growing any. Been there. Done that. Failed.

Instead, I spend Saturday mornings sniffing out farm stands and filling bags with ripe globes that have that certain feel and look about them: deeply red, of medium firmness and perhaps a light sprinkling of yellow flecks.

A bit of soil on the skin is desirable, though size doesn’t figure in so much for me. I’ve had excellent specimens that were as diminutive as a golf ball and some hefty enough to knock over a few bowling pins.

Of course, the No. 1 requirement is that they are born right here in the Pee Dee for fresh-picked flavor. My better-half’s uncle in Lake City was a reliable source for my summer tomato stash until he gave up the garden a couple of years ago because of various physical infirmities. Those were some tomatoes, too – tiny but brimming with a sweetness and juiciness that made them perfect for biting into, apple-style. I snacked on a lot of them just like that.

My parents downed tomato sandwiches with relish, as did their parents before them. This made me wonder about the origins of what is considered a Southern culinary tradition. I found that a 1911 edition of the Virginia Chronicle is widely considered to contain the first reference to the sandwich in a description of a man’s meal that contained a “tomato sandwich, a slice of watermelon, iced tea and a slice of coconut cream pie.” I’ll have what he’s having, thank you.

But that date seems about right, considering that the hand-held sandwich did not land in the United States until the early 1800s. Viewed with suspicion because of the funky scent of its leaves, the tomato took a little longer to grow on the public, finally getting the nod from Thomas Jefferson, who snagged some seeds from Europe and planted tomatoes in his legendary garden.

By the mid-1800s, the tomato was gradually becoming entrenched in American food culture. This was particularly true in the South, where tomatoes enjoyed an especially long growing season thanks to the searing temperatures. This also encouraged the growth of hefty fruit that produced huge slices about the right size to cover a slice of bread. As with many of our simplest dishes, it is likely there is also some element of necessity involved with the tomato sandwich serving as an antidote to hunger born of lean times.

So, as you coat your white bread with Duke’s in preparation to receive the gift of sliced, fresh tomatoes, do so with pride knowing that you are carrying on a tradition passed down through the generations.

And if you grow tomatoes and have extras on your hands, keep in mind that I offer free pickup service.

Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at libbyscarolinaspoon@gmail.com.

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