The Sandwich Southerners Wait for All Year

Sometimes even the most obvious combinations need recipes. Because a recipe is more than just instruction: It documents a habit, an account, a particular way of cooking a dish. And yet, it’s also the simplest dishes that can cause the most controversy.

Recipe: Furikake Tomato Sandwich

Five years ago, Mary — a Greensboro, N.C., YouTuber known as SouthernASMR Sounds — posted an innocent-enough video of herself making and eating a classic Southern tomato sandwich. Speaking gently, she walked through each element of her ideal sandwich, from the soft white bread to the thinly sliced, salted and peppered tomatoes, down to the brand of mayonnaise (“twangy” Duke’s, of course). “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” she says.

But many did knock it. A lot of commenters, plenty of them non-Southerners, called the assemblage “gross,” or criticized her technique. (She eventually turned off the comments section, saying she didn’t need that negativity in her life.)

When it comes to the tomato sandwich, at least in the South, the conversation is less about what it is than what it is not. According to the readers of my hometown’s Gwinnett Magazine in Georgia, the Official Tomato Sandwich is two slices of white bread (“Not toasted. Fresh, so it sticks to the back of your teeth”); a homegrown vine-ripe tomato (“Not peeled. Juicy so you have to hold it over the sink”); black pepper and salt; and “a sizable portion” of mayonnaise (“Not Miracle Whip”).

Central to all this is good timing. A homegrown, vine-ripe tomato is ready when it’s ready. That restless buildup for the perfect tomato to slacken and blush, to actually smell of fire and rain? Some people wait all year for it. Your tomato need not be plucked from the Garden of Eden to be good: Just try to find one that came from a farmer during its high season and not a big-box supermarket in winter. Though cherry, Campari and other small greenhouse tomatoes can be lovely, what you really want is a big, peak-season beefsteak or heirloom that still has the warmth of the sun as you slice into it.

Earlier this summer, Mary eagerly turned a small German queen tomato — the only one to successfully come out of her garden so far this year — into a sandwich. What else would she have done? “The tomato was good,” she says. “The mayonnaise was good. But the bread was not great.” That’s because she didn’t have her Merita Old Fashioned Bread, the soft white sandwich loaf she was used to. (Her family didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, she says, so her mother would go to the bakery thrift store where bags of bread, especially Merita brand, were sold closer to their expiration dates.) You could use a fancier sourdough or a crusty focaccia, but why? The joy of a Southern tomato sandwich is to highlight the fruit. The mushy whiteness of a soft sandwich bread, as the dripping tomato sogs the edges, is auxiliary for some.

There’s debate about whether the bread needs to be toasted. Most Southerners, like Mary, would say no: That soft texture is central to the traditional tomato-sandwich experience. But Jason Skrobar, a food stylist and author of the coming “The Book of Sandwiches,” calls for toasted sourdough in a variation with sun-dried-tomato mayonnaise, which he calls My Perfect Sandwich. My colleague J. Kenji López-Alt, a Seattle resident, pan-toasts just one side of each slice, which he turns inward so the outsides are still soft, a key feature of the classic. (It should be noted that neither Skrobar nor López-Alt is Southern.)

Alternatively, the briefest stint in a toaster means you can have the best of both worlds: The bread keeps its structure under a juicy tomato while maintaining its pillowy softness inside. To each their own. As long as you have to eat your dripping sandwich over the sink, then you’re in the ballpark.

The hallmark of a good tomato sandwich, for me, is mayonnaise that slathers and pools against the tomato. If you’re from the South, “you either grew up in a Duke’s household or a Hellmann’s household,” Mary says. To my mind, the whole Duke’s-versus-Hellmann’s debate couldn’t be more boring or irrelevant (though I enjoy riling people up every year). I use mild-tasting Hellmann’s in this particular case, because I like to sprinkle a little furikake over the mayonnaise before sandwiching the tomatoes. The seaweed in the flavorful rice seasoning amps up the tomato’s savoriness, intensifying the harmony of fruit, carb and condiment. Flavor-forward Duke’s or even Kewpie, delicious though they are, would overpower everything in my perfect tomato sandwich.

All year, I dream of such a sandwich — the first good tomato sandwich of the year.

Recently, Mary told me that she found excellent heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market, those delicious ugly ones in red, green and purple. She also restocked her cherished Merita bread, used Duke’s (of course) and filmed herself eating her favorite sandwich for her 400,000 fans. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said to me, describing how lucky she feels to get to work for herself, to make A.S.M.R. videos that help people all over the world — like me — relax and fall asleep every night. Tonight, as I dream of my tomato sandwich, Mary builds her own, warning us calmly and quietly, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Recipe: Furikake Tomato Sandwich

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