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Where Y’Eat with Ian McNulty: Life lessons from a summertime tomato sandwich

The classic summertime tomato sandwich
Photo by Ian McNulty
A classic tomato sandwich

The tomato sandwich is a summertime classic you can make in seconds, eat almost as fast and argue about forever.

It’s simple, it’s cheap and it’s a seasonal pleasure we identify as our own. People try to improve upon it, but why?

Even when entire business concepts are built around trying to sell you a grilled cheese, a tomato sandwich still is not really restaurant food. It’s home food.You don’t even need a plate. I’ll wager at least half of all tomato sandwiches are eaten over the kitchen sink, the juice dripping down over the morning’s coffee cups.

This is a sandwich that has steps but does not need a recipe. Anyone who starts trying to dictate tomato ratios or slice thickness has forgotten the spirit of this sandwich. They are overthinking it.

The tomato is not a garnish. It is the sandwich, with nothing more than salt and pepper, mayo and, crucially, some standard-issue spongy white sandwich bread.

It’s tempting to see what better bread would do for the tomato sandwich. Let me save you the effort and wasted bread. I’ve tried many types, and they all changed the sandwich too much.

Baguette? Too chewy, too slippery. Good crusty sourdough? Nice try, but it competes too much with the tomato, and it lets too much juice escape. How about a po-boy loaf? Nope. Bread built for oysters and gravy just swallows up the tomato.

Simply put: the reason plain white sandwich bread is ideal for a tomato sandwich is that it’s barely there. It becomes one with the mayo and tomato.

The processed weirdness of it is what makes sliced white bread perfect for the job. It’s a credit to power of the tomato sandwich that it can transform the stuff and make it all taste somehow wholesome.

Maybe you don’t look to sandwiches for life lessons, but I believe the tomato sandwich can set an example for summer living around here. Keep it simple and don’t overdress.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.