Tomatoes one of the juiciest slices of Lowcountry life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 4, 2013 

Tomatoes are the queen of the Lowcountry.

So forgive us if you catch us at this time of year strutting around like royalty. That means we have a kitchen counter full of red ripe tomatoes just picked from St. Helena Island.

In the heart of tomato season, some of us curtsy every time we walk into the kitchen.

An old tale is that the closer tomatoes are planted to the marsh the better they'll be. You hear rumblings about which island has the best tomatoes -- St. Helena, Edisto, Johns or Wadmalaw.

In 2007, Edisto Island hosted its second annual Carolina Lowcountry Tomato Festival. It had been 39 years since the first annual festival. Don't ask; it's a Lowcountry thing.

And as I recall, the crowning of the Tomato Queen at the street dance in front of Whaleys gas station turned watering hole/restaurant became so festive it may have put the annual celebration on hold for another 39 years.

This is the season that the Frogmore community on St. Helena Island does its best imitation of Manhattan. A feint sense of urgency filters through the tall pines as strings of 18-wheelers pull in and out of bustling tomato packing sheds.

And at home, we have tomato pie, tomatoes and okra, tomato gravy and tomatoes sprinkled with silver queen corn.

We have canned tomatoes, stewed tomatoes and Depression tomatoes (cooked with crumbled leftover biscuits and a dash of brown sugar).

We have stuffed tomatoes, baked tomatoes and tomatoes between slices of mozzarella cheese, leaves of basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

We have marinated tomatoes, sliced tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, pickled green tomatoes and tomato relish.

Recently, we have added "heirloom tomatoes." My Granny, who planted tomatoes of many colors and shapes in her backyard garden, rolled over in her grave when she saw what I paid this summer for a few slivers of Edisto Island heirloom tomatoes at Husk restaurant in Charleston. They were delicious, an appetizer shining in a tad of oil and vinegar.

But the granddaddy of them all is the simple tomato sandwich.

This is why I tried so hard to grow tomatoes, with little luck. If the squirrels and birds messed up and left a couple of my tomatoes until they turned red, they looked more cherry tomatoes than the Big Boys they were supposed to be. After months of nursing and cuddling the paltry things, I would bring one in the house and my wife would pretend to be so excited: "Oh, can I make a sandwich?"

Now I leave the tomato planting to the professionals who run pick-your-own fields, and I haul them in the house by the bucket full.

Then comes a ritual learned as a child and never improved upon. I pick a tomato from the counter that is soft, but not mushy, juicy but firm.

I pull out a serrated knife that was probably a wedding gift, and, like me, lives for this day. I peel the skin off the tomato and then cut it into about three thick, steak-like slices.

The next key ingredient is Little Miss Sunbeam. Put aside that hearty Farmhouse bread you eat the rest of the year and reach for a king-sized loaf of thin white bread, fortified with a few more nutrients than are in its plastic wrapper.

The next essential ingredient is Duke's mayonnaise.

You can use your Hellmann's or Kraft if you insist on living a deprived existence. But if you were to use Miracle Whip, you should serve time on a chain gang.

Slather thick swirls of mayonnaise on both slices of bread. One tomato slice will fill the whole sandwich. Sprinkle it with salt. Grab a glass of milk, and several napkins. You'll need them to remain somewhat couth in the presence of royalty.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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