I share a food favorite with 11-year-old Harriet the Spy—a love for a good tomato sandwich. The story-book sleuth preferred her tomatoes on squishy, white bread with mayonnaise.
Much to her mother’s dismay, she ate a tomato sandwich for lunch every day for five years and always cake and milk at 3:45 each day. Now that’s a habit I could ease into.
When Tomatoes Were Mere Decorative Baubles
Did you know our ancestors were not all that enthusiastic about tomatoes? Sixteenth century Europeans grew the small, yellowish orbs in their gardens as ornamental plants after the Spanish brought them back from Central and South America.
A writer in 1585 said tomatoes were edible if sprinkled with salt, pepper and oil, but he didn’t recommend it, since the fruit was “bad nourishment.”
A Long and Luscious History
The first tomato recipes were published in Naples in 1692, though tomatoes were still considered an avant garde ingredient. The simple directions are much like some in our cookbooks: roast the tomatoes in embers and skin. Add onions, chili pepper, thyme, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.
Fifty years later cooks added parsley and garlic to tomatoes, getting the recipe closer to the pasta sauce we know today.
By the 18th century residents of Naples and Tuscany started pairing tomatoes with bread, placing them atop bruschetta. The tomato sandwich was born!
How to Make a Tomato Sandwich
The No-Recipe Recipe
Giving instructions for a Tomato Sandwich are like giving recipes for a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich or a Grilled Cheese. The name should say it all.
Actually, there are a few secrets to the proper Tomato Sandwich worth mentioning: (1) salting the tomatoes and letting them sit for at least 5 minutes to prevent sogginess, and (2) using real mayo.
(Note: Cartoon savant Lucy Van Pelt, says sandwiches should never be cut. They should be folded to prevent the flavor from falling out. You are warned.)
- 2 to 3 heirloom tomatoes preferred, but others will do
- Hellman’s mayonnaise or Low-Fat (not the no-fat salad dressing) or Duke’s mayonnaise, if you’re a Southerner
- White bread, if you’re a purist, otherwise bread of choice
- Black pepper
- Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on a layer of paper towels. Sprinkle tomatoes with a bit of salt and let sit and drain for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Meanwhile, slather the bread with mayonnaise—on both sides.
- Place a few slices of tomatoes on bread and sprinkle with black pepper. Top with another slice of bread and cut in half, if desired.