Seasons by the Sea: Tomato Sandwich, ’Nuff Said

When I say “tomato sandwich,” I mean just that, and only that.
Tomato sandwiches are about tomatoes, bread, and mayonnaise, period. Laura Donnelly Photos

This story was inspired by some late-night Instagram viewing. Within a short period, the Southern food writer Julia Reed, local chef Kevin Penner, and super-famous chef David Chang had all posted their versions of the tomato sandwich. 

Julia Reed’s post proclaimed that plain white bread, a thick slice of Beefsteak tomato, and Duke’s mayonnaise were the only way to go. Kevin Penner’s was similar, simply relying on the goodness of the tomato and purity of accompaniments. David Chang’s included Kewpie mayonnaise, a Japanese mayonnaise you may not be familiar with that is used in every spicy tuna roll you’ve ever eaten. More on mayos momentarily. 

When I say “tomato sandwich,” I mean just that, and only that. White bread, mayo, salt and pepper, and a thick slice of the best tomato you can find. It takes minutes to prepare, should only be made at the height of tomato season, and is also referred to as a “sink sandwich,” as in, it’s messy and casual, eat it over the kitchen sink. Beyond that, with somewhat sincere apologies to the almost 100 people who responded on Facebook with their favorite variations: You are talking about a sandwich that has tomato in it. Red onion, bacon, cucumber, lettuce, goat cheese, cheddar cheese, pickled jalapeños, fried green tomatoes, have at it.

The research began thus: tomatoes from Round Swamp Farm in East Hampton, Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, Balsam Farms in Amagansett, Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton, Halsey Farm in Water Mill, and a friend’s garden. Breads from Pepperidge Farm, Arnold, and Carissa’s (sourdough and honey oat). Mayos: Hellman’s, Duke’s (available down South and online), Kewpie (available at Asian markets and online), Sir Kensington, Kimchijews Kimchi mayo (local), and homemade. Hellman’s and Duke’s won in a tie for overall, basic, and easy to find condiments. Kewpie and Sir Kensington were too overpowering and tangy for this simple trifecta of ingredients.

My favorite sandwich combo of all the ones I tried was made with Carissa’s honey oat bread. This bread has the texture, moisture, and light sweetness you want for swaddling your tomato slice. Kimchijews Kimchi mayo (available at L & W Market in Bridgehampton and various farm stands and farmers markets) tasted like good mayo with some mysterious umami situation going on. One good tomato, salt and pepper. Local, local, local.

For those who don’t make their own, Breadzilla in Wainscott got numerous shout-outs and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton has been running a tomato sandwich special.

Friends like Barbara Dayton and Ellen White went on a tear making tomato sandwiches after reading the Facebook post. Ah, the power of suggestion.

I never get tired of trying tomato sandwiches. As a matter of fact, on Sunday morning I had another for breakfast (Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse bread, yellow tomato), then went to a friend’s house for lunch. The menu: gazpacho and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. I brought a St. Lucia style salad: tomatoes, cucumbers, mango, and red onion with a garlic dressing. It was a tomatopalooza!!!

Now for some slightly bad news. By the time you read this, tomato season will be close to over. The cold, rainy June was followed by some ideal weather, then several inches of rain, causing many plants to rot and mildew. So if you want the perfect sandwich, and just as important, want to make some sauce for the winter, now is the time.

Just what is it that gives the Solanum lycopersicum its flavor? Sugars (fructose and glucose), acids mostly citric and malic), and volatile compounds that are released when the tomato is sliced, crushed, eaten. Tomatoes can be sweet, acidic, or balanced. Our perception of tomato flavor comes from the taste and the smell. The volatile compounds (there are 15 to 20 assertive ones in each fruit) are released as fragrance, which integrates with the taste to create a full flavor. Red and pink tomatoes generally have more sugar than acid, orange and yellow are less acidic and milder. Black and purple are complex with balanced levels of sweet and tart. Cherry and grape tomatoes have the highest concentration of sweetness. 

Why did so many people respond to “tomato sandwich: discuss”? Perhaps because we all know it is a fleeting and not always reliable, seasonal thing. This, along with childhood memories, Harriet the Spy, the beauty of simplicity, and more. I fully intend to try many of the suggestions: Spike seasoning from the Menus; goat cheese on toasted sourdough from Cali pal, Sarah Osborne, avocado, basil leaves, bacon, cucumbers, jalapeños, salted butter, and more. I do, however, draw the line at cutting off the crusts (this is not a tea sandwich from William Poll!) and Miracle Whip. Miracle Whip is a salad dressing.

Corn also has a short season but you can freeze corn with beautiful results. It may become slightly watery and translucent but it still tastes like summer. You can do no such thing with raw tomatoes, no freezing, no refrigeration. So enjoy them while you can, simply prepared, and consume them with gratitude and mindfulness . . . over the kitchen sink.

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To make her sandwiches, our columnist gathered artisan and commercially prepared breads and mayonnaises, but kept the tomatoes completely local.