David Lauderdale

The perfect tomato sandwich from the SC Lowcountry, with love, drips and Duke’s

That day in late June when heaven comes to earth in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
That day in late June when heaven comes to earth in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Staff photo

You can have Christmas.

Just give me that day in late June when a big, fat, red tomato is ready to pick from an itchy vine, baking like the rest of us in the St. Helena Island sun.

Give me that day, which arrived this past Wednesday, when a tomato slice as thick as a ribeye — still full of the heat and humidity of the South Carolina Lowcountry — is laid gently onto an wavy layer of Duke’s mayonnaise on a slice of Sunbeam white bread.

Grab a shaker of salt, and what you have in your hand is the first tomato sandwich of the year.

The red and white juice will drip down to your elbows. It’ll be a three-napkin event.

And it will be best to stand over the kitchen sink, just like that glorious day when you slurp, fuzz and all, into the first peach of a summer down South.

That first tomato sandwich will restore your faith in God, maybe even mankind.

You might yelp like a bird dog, or sing “I Say a Little Prayer” like Aretha Franklin.

Think of all that has gone wrong in this world since that first ’mater sandwich from Uncle Jamie’s crop when my feet were bare and my knees full of scrapes.

But, despite the hurricanes and droughts and a staggering 13 inches of rain in a recent week on St. Helena, not to mention wars and rumors of wars, the tomato sandwich survives.

It comes with traditions that tend more toward a civil war than the passing down of Grandmother’s fine china.

Down South, people have been disinherited for using Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Lord forgive me for uttering the word, on a tomato sandwich.

But that’s not the only sign that we have missionary work to do. A young woman I work with right here in Beaufort County said last week she’d never heard of a tomato sandwich. She referred to something that sounded like rubbing garlic, and scraping a tomato on a piece of hard bread.

Pass me my smelling salts.

In our county, tomatoes are about the only thing we plant anymore besides condominiums.

And we plant them with class.

The latest numbers at the Clemson University Extension Service, from 2016, say 800 acres of tomatoes are grown, most of it on St. Helena Island by two major operators, Lipman Family Farms (formerly Six L’s Packing Co.), and the Sanders family’s Seaside Farm, which grows 15 million to 20 million pounds of tomatoes a year.

The $17.5 million industry turns sleepy St. Helena Island into a buzz of 18-wheelers. Migrant workers fill the fields. The packing houses, where generations of Lowcountry kids got their first jobs, seem to run 24/7 this time of year.

For me, it’s all a lot quieter. I go to Dempsey Farms on St. Helena. Davy Dempsey does the planting and I do the picking, like thousands of city slickers have done for 45 years, trekking to and from Fripp Island and the Hunting Island State Park.

This is a banner year so far, and it just started. The big hit are the Vintage Ripes, designated as heirlooms.

But it won’t last long.

Soon the St. Helena Island sun will win, and the fields will empty, to be prepared for watermelons or the next tomato crop.

And we’ll be left with visions of tomato juice and Duke’s mayonnaise slip-sliding through our heads.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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