Summertime—if you eat local food, the living really is easy. Case in point: the tomato sandwich. Two slabs of bread + a smear of mayo + a nice thick slice of vine-ripened tomato + a sprinkle of salt = heaven. I learned the joys of the tomato sandwich from a midwest-born pal and since then it's been my summer lunch standby. The texture is a great combination of juicy and crusty - reaching the pinnacle of cracusus - but what gives this simple classic amazing, full-bodied satisfaction is the tomato's special quality of being the most umami of fruits.
What is this strangely named quality? Food scientists tell us that umami is the fifth taste—along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In 2001, after discovering teeny tiny taste buds capable of detecting it, they gave it their seal of reality. Umaminess is mostly caused by a naturally-occurring chemical called glutamate—it gives meat, mushrooms, cheese, nuts, seaweeds and other hearty foods their savoriness. The Japanese have known about the fifth taste for eons, they named it umami.
Tomatoes have more natural glutamate than any other fruit or vegetable, which is what makes them so satisfyingly meaty (they don't call 'em Beefsteak tomatoes for nothing). The glutamic acid is concentrated in the jelly that surrounds the seeds which contains three to four times more that the rest of the fruit—you may want to revise recipes that call for squeezing it out, or at least save it for soup stock. Of course you want to keep that juicy, umami goodness in your tomato sandwich.
I always make my tomato sandwich with whole wheat toast, Hellman's, and salt, but it turns out that there are as many variations on this excellent theme as there are fans of the sandwich. I queried an unscientific sampling of folks and discovered the following.
The choice of bread is all over the map—most folks choose a white peasant bread, singer songwriter Bibi Farber prefers Ezekial's sprouted grain flourless bread, Kevin Quilty adores Bread Alone's sourdough rye with caraway seeds, and Fay Loomis suggests La Brea Bakery Three Cheese Semolina bread. People seem evenly split between plain bread and toast, and there's a sizable open-face contingent as well.
And although Hellman's mayonnaise seems to be the slather of choice, there's variation even there. Ingrid Price likes a little hummus, while author Linda O'Keefe and union organizer Lisa Jessup proclaim the virtues of a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Several mentioned fresh mozzerella; A couple of uber-foodies even mumbled about making their own mayonnaise, but it's unclear whether this ideal has ever been accomplished. Paula Cereghino from Cereghino Smith Winery likes cream cheese, Deborah Hitz just discovered a bleu cheese combo, and my cuz Barbara Thomas likes hers with a little egg salad.
As for seasonings, purists stick to a sprinkle of salt while elaborators add extras: fresh-ground pepper is a favorite, Gunks climber Carol Garfinkel and several others opt for a few leaves basil or marjoram (oregano's sweet cousin), actor Lori Wilner goes for a schmear of pesto. Maximalists add bacon or tempeh bacon.
There's technique for creating the sandwich as well. While most folks like nice, thick slices of a large tomato, Carol likes her's chopped. Arabella Hutter, enjoying time in Spain, reports that local tomato sandwiches are made with cherry tomatoes. Chef John Novi told me of the custom in Angri, Italy, where he spends time. The natives cut the tomato in half and squeeze it like a lemon over the grilled bread, throwing away the skin. They add olive oil, garlic and basil leaves. It sounds like fun.
And, the pièce de résistance, the tomato itself? Only a few people mentioned favorite varieties, such as Brandywines or Cherokee Purples; Marie Jackson likes Jet Star tomatoes, Alana Blum suggests paste tomatoes like Blue Beech. Freshness and ripeness were the most important quality by far to most tomato sandwich lovers, the crème de la crème being tomatoes from the back yard still warm from the sun. I love the way the scent of the tomato leaves briefly clings to their skin, creating a natural complementary herbal note that's rare and amazing. (If you aren't growing your own tomatoes this year, remember this moment next spring!)
Don't forget—fresh, locally-grown, field-ripened tomatoes do have a limited season—if you're inspired to try out some new sandwich variations, better start now. Check out your local farmstand or farmers market!