Regional Culture: A Tow Mater Sandwich Is For More Than Just Kids

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad,” quipped British journalist Miles Kington.

Southern knowledge is knowing that this month is the perfect time to enjoy a tomato in a sandwich. When I first mentioned to my wife one July that a tomato sandwich would be a great idea for lunch, she looked quizzically at me. “With what else?” this native of Minnesota asked.

Obviously she thought (and still does think) that a tomato by itself cannot constitute a sandwich. For her, bread with tomato slices is incomplete until bacon and lettuce are added. I’ve been trying to indoctrinate her about foods of this region and have made some progress now that she’s spent almost a third of her life in the South.

But where to get tomatoes that can be the centerpiece of a sandwich? The ones we grow on the back deck just don’t compare favorably to those grown on local farms. Because we lose them to squirrels and insects before they ripen, tomatoes this month may have to be bought.

My favorite place is a farmers market where the produce is guaranteed to be local. A roadside stand is another option (even more justifiable if it has homemade ice cream like Ben’s at Kalawi Farms in Eagle Springs or Highlander Farms near Whispering Pines).

Select tomatoes based on their flavor, not appearance. Heirloom tomatoes are good ones to buy. The local favorites seem to be German Johnson, a variety that turns deep red-pink as it ripens on the vine, and Cherokee purple, which uninformed shoppers skip because it has ungainly bulges and tones of brown, green and purple. However, each one is dynamite in a sandwich.

A century ago the youth of our state would have recognized only these varieties, not the modern ones sold today at supermarkets. Tomato clubs, started in 1911 by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, involved young girls in the production of agricultural crops and would have heightened their appreciation for these flavorful varieties.

Because some modern hybrid varieties have been bred for specific characteristics, such as transportability, uniform color, long shelf life and resistance to disease, they don’t convey the rich flavors of varieties enjoyed by earlier generations. In contrast, heirloom tomatoes, which are not grown in modern largescale agriculture, have been around since 1950 (or earlier) or their seeds have been passed down through multiple generations. These tomatoes still have an old-fashioned taste and bring forward flavor from the past.

For the sandwich, some folks want the white bread (yes, it has to be white; save multigrain for another occasion) toasted. Not me. Tomato slices won’t make good bread like Merita or Wonder soggy if it’s been spread lightly with mayonnaise. Even if they do, never complain about juicy tomatoes.

And no regular mayonnaise will do. In this region most old-timers insist on Duke’s, a brand that has been made for more than 100 years and is the secret ingredient in many local kitchens.

The first time that I offered a tomato sandwich to a grandson, he heard “Tow Mater” (the tow truck in the Cars movie series). He shook his head “no” until he saw what I had on my plate and then wisely reconsidered. My wife, on the other hand, is still shaking her head “no.”

The next time that you see BLT on a menu, ask the server if the kitchen can hold the bacon and lettuce. You might be surprised at how something so simple can be so good.

Ray Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at