You know the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t getting any better when the 25th anniversary Jack McKibbon BLT luncheon is canceled.
That luncheon, which has featured tomato-bacon-lettuce sandwiches with homemade ice cream for dessert, is a celebration of the peak of homegrown tomato season in North Georgia. When it was held for more than two decades on Murphy Boulevard in Gainesville, it also was an opportunity for classic car and truck enthusiasts to gather, kick the tires and stare at what’s under the hoods of vintage vehicles.
The event is named after McKibbon because he has been the daddy of it, starting it a quarter-century ago, along with such friends and colleagues as Howard Page, Howard Whelchel, Joe Wyant, Brent Danneman, Lee Martin, George Selke and the late Cecil Cochran, who churned the peach ice cream.
The luncheon almost faded into history until Peach State Bank rescued it a couple of years ago. It won’t be held in the bank’s parking lot at the corner of West Academy and Washington streets downtown this year because of the impossibility of social distancing the hordes seeking to satisfy their ’mater sammich (interpreted “tomato sandwich”) cravings.
While the luncheon offers bacon and lettuce to fix your sandwich, purists will be happy with just white bread, mayonnaise and a hunk of homegrown tomato. Most also insist on Duke’s Mayonnaise.
Bill Smith, an award-winning chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., was featured in Our State magazine, a publication that extols the pleasures of The Old North State. A video shows him talking about and fixing a tomato sandwich. He goes with white bread and one thick slice of a homegrown tomato, but daringly suggests McCormick’s Mayonesa Mayonaisse, instead of Duke’s or Hellman’s as many connoisseurs prefer. One of its ingredients is lime juice. Smith sprinkles a little salt on his tomato, but others believe a dash of pepper is better.
Some depart from white bread and go with wheat, but the main ingredient, of course, is the saucer-sized slice of tomato.
Bob Hamrick, former Gainesville mayor, used to say a good ’mater sammich is sloppy; you know you’ve got one when you have to lean over the kitchen sink to eat it, the juice running down to your elbows.
North Georgia gardens are brimming today with those ripe red Big Boys, Better Boys or whatever. People line up to harvest them at local farmers’ markets.
There are even festivals to celebrate this famous fruit (it isn’t officially a veggie). They’ve been held everywhere from Glen Ella Springs in Habersham County to California to Tennessee. In Spain, they shoot rockets filled with tomatoes, then wallow around in the juice on the streets. Another such quirky event is a Tomato War in Vermont. There they drink Bloody Marys, then throw tomatoes at each other.
New Jersey holds a tomato contest with cash prizes going to growers of the largest tomatoes. Some specimens have weighed more than 6 pounds.
It is unclear who “invented” the tomato sandwich, though one of the Earls of Sandwich is said to have invented the sandwich itself, ordering a hunk of meat between two slices of bread that he could hold in one hand while gambling with the other.
One would guess ’mater sammiches came quickly after that. Surely Native Americans discovered how tasty tomatoes are between bread slices, though mayonnaise probably wasn’t readily available on the trading post’s shelves as it apparently was “invented” in the 1700s.
There have been songs written about homegrown tomatoes (John Denver), even books about them. “Tomatoville” is a website all about tomatoes.
There are even monuments to tomatoes, kind of like the one to the Big Red Apple in Cornelia. One tomato monument sits in front of the municipal building in Warren, Ark. Another stands in Pittstown, Pa., which proclaims itself “Tomato Capital of the World.” There’s even one in Russia.
Somebody should erect a ’mater sammich monument in North Georgia. Not to take away from anybody else’s tomatoes, there just seems to be something especially flavorful about the ones grown around here.
The pandemic is depressing. Politics is painful. Street violence is disheartening. But tomatoes are plentiful and ripe for the picking and the eating. Nothing like a juicy homegrown slice of tomato inside a couple of pieces of bread to make things all better.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.