In Praise of Tomato Sandwiches

From Mary Tanner's garden. Photo by Jim Tanner.

September is here. Autumn is around the corner and too soon the first freeze will bring that bleak period without fresh local tomatoes. Even in season, too few of those delicious morsels make it to my table.

Except for a stint in the Arizona desert I have tried, sometimes successfully, to have a small garden. My cooking is limited to the charcoal grill, so when our meals include something from the garden I feel a touch of personal satisfaction. The products of our gardens have not always made it to the table. One spring a person I will not name consumed all the green peas while supposedly harvesting for his family.

There is a lot of shade around our house. Who could have known that trees would grow so much in fourteen years? The sparse sunshine and the insistent deer, rabbits and other creatures make it difficult to garden more than a tiny space. Disclaimer — my advancing years have nothing to do with the difficulty.

Vegetables were an integral part of my childhood. A few years into the Great Depression one of my grandfathers peddled fresh produce to sustain his family. He sold from a pushcart, then a horse-drawn wagon. There were times when he took me along on a segment of his route. A five year old child perched amid a display of fresh vegetables may have been a marketing ploy on his part, but it made wonderful memories for me.

I liked vegetables then, but they get better as I get older. A well prepared cut of meat delights my palate, but if a meal consists entirely of tasty plants I will not complain. Taste is personal, but so is life. Does any vegetable exemplify personal taste preference more clearly than tomatoes?

The experience of biting into a ripe tomato is one of life’s pleasures, but the high probability of disappointment makes me avoid them when they are not in season. I do occasionally make exceptions for restaurant sandwiches. They almost always include tomatoes — often for esthetic reasons, but originally because they enhance the taste of so many sandwiches.

Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches are one of the best culinary developments of all time. If anyone had ever asked, I would have answered that there was no way to improve a BLT. Then a few years ago, Marty prepared a BLT and G. Now I have to admit I was wrong. Of course the guacamole also has to be fresh.

A few months ago, in expressing my excitement about the approach of tomato season, I complained about “mealy tasteless supermarket tomatoes.” The visually attractive fruits and vegetables in store displays all too frequently lack that exhilarating burst of crisp juicy sweetness found only in freshly harvested produce. Heirloom tomatoes are pretty only to those who appreciate what waits within.

Farmers, shipping companies and supermarkets need their products to be bruise resistant, have a long shelf life and be uniformly appealing. Flavor has a lower priority. I don’t know where nutrition fits into the rankings.

The friend who listened patiently to my complaints reminded me that seed companies are also responsible for the lack of variety and flavor. They have produced seeds that yield acres of tomatoes or other vegetables that ripen at the same time and vary only slightly in size and color. Home gardeners who want old-fashioned flavors in their veggies have to seek actively for older and more flavorful seed varieties. She added that breeding insect resistant plants has also contributed to my texture and taste disappointments.

After World War II, America’s insatiable needs for almost everything, encouraged mass production. Neighborhood grocers gave way to supermarkets and backyard gardens faded away. Uniformity and blandness were predictable outgrowths, but people who value individuality and variety in their meals have protested for decades. Apparently our numbers are growing as more people express a preference for flavor over convenience.

The popularity of farmer’s markets and the increasing number of restaurants offering local products on their menus excite me — indications that more of us want fresh flavorful food. It also means the money we spend on produce stays in the local economy. Anyone who doubts that the desire for fresh food is widespread should try arriving at one of the local markets as it is about to open.

Thanks to one of our local farmers, I relished a tomato sandwich at lunch today; a thick layer of sliced scrumptiousness between slices of multigrain bread with mayo. It was mouthwatering, and it reawakened my desire for my own garden. I mean plants grown in the ground, not in a greenhouse or in pots on the deck. There is a small movement within our community to establish a community garden. The time is right for that effort to take root, and I hope the garden plots have sufficient space to grow green peas — maybe enough to share.

That lunchtime tomato sandwich must have stirred a bit of nostalgia, because I succumbed to a sudden irresistible urge to abandon my tea and finish lunch with a Coke float.

7 thoughts on “In Praise of Tomato Sandwiches

  1. OK Ken–now I just gotta have tomatoes with my eggs this AM. A friend gave me four tomatoes out of her garden. In my book they are worth about $25 each. Magnificent! Good writing right from your heart. Maria

  2. Ken
    Your writing is very good. I am glad you found this pursuit for which you are well qualified. However,I am sorry we don’t cross paths much anymore to exchanfge views on BC, HF, golf and politics. Regards, Ed

  3. Ken, I enjoyed your writing — it stimulated my taste buds and brought back fond memories of
    bringing the salt shaker to the garden to eat juicy tomatoes off the vine.

  4. Sadly Katie did not inherit your live if tomato sandwiches. I’m always up for a good one with a sprinkle of black pepper when the tomatoes are in season.

  5. If it was spring I would be trying yet another small garden, which in the end after weeds animals and bugs would yield enough for one meal for Susie and myself, if most wasn’t consumed upon picking. I don’t think I will ever try another garden but will be having a BLT for lunch today after reading your article. Tom Almy

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