David Lauderdale

‘Don’t these people know any better?’: The come-to-Jesus Lowcountry tomato experience

You’ll need only one slice to make a sandwich with the ugly tomato

Ted Keister talks about tomatoes at Dempsey Farms.
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Ted Keister talks about tomatoes at Dempsey Farms.

Back in the old days, like last week, I thought the perfect tomato sandwich had only four ingredients.

We talked about it: a juicy St. Helena Island tomato, globs of Duke’s mayonnaise, cheap white bread and salt.

But as it turns out, Lowcountry tomato sandwiches have a lot of moving parts, dripping through the soul, right down to the Weejuns.

I’m not sure what it means, but you wouldn’t believe how many of your friends and neighbors are walking around with whopping tomato stories pent up inside them, bursting to escape.

All week, people have been gushing about their “maters.” That go in a “sammich.”

This man’s story could have been ripped from a hymnbook at a tent revival:

“As a transplanted Yankee, I have been a Hellmann’s user,” reads a confessional from Carl Zies.

“Since moving here almost 30 years ago, I can’t tell you the number of times I have walked by the Duke’s in the store trying to find my Hellmann’s, always with the thought, ‘Don’t these people know any better?’

“While reading your piece, I could see, smell, feel and taste the sandwich (couldn’t hear it). I was so affected, I asked my wife, Debbie, to pick me up a small jar and maybe a tomato or two. I could at least try Duke’s. Last night for dinner ... epiphany. I really, really like Duke’s. I am converted. I believe! No more Hellmann’s in this house, even for visiting house guests.”

In other confessionals, it has now come to light that some Beaufort kids weren’t always working late at the tomato packing shed when the crop came in, like their parents thought. The work day ended for the stackers and sorters when the job was finished, I’ve been told. They made $2.35 an hour, stood on pillows, had tomato fights at the end of the night, and when they grew up and gave blood, it had tomato seeds in it.

That last part’s a joke, I think, but one Beaufort kid who packed tomatoes and made it safely to adulthood now admits on Facebook:

“My kids’ eyes glaze over when I tell them about our new-found freedom to stay out late, though we were supposed to be working! I remember late nights at the drive in, instead!! Do you?!”

They spent their hot paychecks on Weejuns, the penny loafers that made you popular, because some moms wouldn’t spring for the name-brand stuff.

Neil Lipsitz got more than 75 responses on the Facebook page “Back in the day in Beaufort SC” when he asked who worked at Six L’s or one of the other tomato-packing sheds. “I worked upstairs in the loft making boxes at 6 L’s with 2 beautiful young ladies,” he confessed.

What happens in the packing shed stays in the packing shed, they always say, but your neighbors aren’t nearly as hush-hush about what makes a perfect tomato sandwich.

“You want the bread so fresh that it gets soggy,” says one.

Then this: “The really good tomatoes don’t even make it onto the bread around me.”

One lady asked apologetically if it’s OK that she likes a slice of cheese on her tomato sandwich. Others like to add a slice of Vidalia onion. Throw on a few boiled peanuts and you could complete one daily requirement of the South Carolina food pyramid: foods that you can spit.

Other local readers were more certain in their convictions.

The tomato sandwich must be eaten with a cold Coke, they insist. Or sweet tea. A glass of whole milk. Or Lay’s potato chips.

Some people gussy up their sandwiches, talking about toasted sourdough bread, but that misses the whole point.

One faithful reader nailed it. John W. “Mac” MacIlroy, a writer from Bluffton whose book about growing up is called “Not Exactly Rocket Scientists and Other Stories,” sent his essay called “Duke’s.”

It’s a fictional account of a half-eaten sandwich in a joint called the Awkward Oyster near Beaufort, where the story was published in Lowcountry Weekly. I like this part, about Duke’s mayonnaise, where one of the characters finally explains the sandwich.

“In Iraq, I bunked next to a tough corporal named Mullins, just turned twenty. He was a country boy, from Georgia like me. His mom sent him a couple jars of Duke’s every month, and we would heap gobs of the stuff on everything. Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries. Even mixed it into spaghetti . . . once.” He smiled, then turned away and paused. “But it wasn’t really about the mayonnaise, you see, it was all about home.

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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