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Tomato sandwiches: The official meal of summer in the South
But the battle over the most Southern brand of mayo rages on
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Tomato sandwiches are the quintessential Southern meal during summer. They are best served, as pictured here, using white bread, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. - photo by Austin Steele

Nothing says summer in the South like a tomato sandwich.

And almost nothing is more contentious in the South than how to do it right.

“Salt and pepper and mayonnaise are a must,” said Drew Alexander, who lives in Clermont.

Alexander remembers growing up in North Georgia with his grandparents, Cleve and Lucy Thomas, who taught him how to raise tomato plants and what a ripe tomato looks like. He learned valuable lessons like patience by planting and harvesting the juicy, red fruit.

The tomato sandwich has become somewhat of a staple in the South — the Hall County Farmers Market had a tomato sandwich party on Tuesday and the Flowery Branch Farmers Market is having one Thursday — and Alexander said it’s easy to identify where someone is from based on how they eat theirs.

“I like an old-fashioned tomato sandwich with tomatoes, salt and pepper, and the mayonnaise is the secret to success,” Alexander said.

For him, Blue Plate mayonnaise is the way to go. It’s what he grew up on, and it’s all his wife, Brooke, will buy.

“Part of it is tradition,” Alexander said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that Blue Plate has just the right amount of salt and a rich, creamy flavor. So, since tomatoes are so acidic, it really complements the tomato sandwich because the salt and acid balances perfectly.”

There’s a bit of a science to it, but Jeff Pierce, who lives in Gainesville, said Duke’s mayonnaise is the only brand that belongs on a tomato sandwich.

Pierce and his wife, Gayla, used to own The G Grill just off the Gainesville square in the mid-1990s, and they had tomato sandwiches on the menu. He said “by far, in the summer, those were the most popular thing we had.”

“There’s only one way to eat a tomato sandwich,” Pierce said. “With Duke’s mayonnaise and white bread.”

He said he’s a little bit of a “rogue” Southerner since discovering a special type of bread. Usually, he’d say Sunbeam is his brand of choice. That was until he discovered Sara Lee Artesano white bread.

“It’s denser and the tomato doesn’t soak through it, and it’s unspeakably good,” Pierce said.

Alexander prefers the tomato soaking through on his tomato sandwiches. He said that’s the sign of a good, fresh tomato.

“The deeper red it is, the more flavor it's going to have because it’s more ripe and it’s going to be more juicy,” Alexander said. “So that’s going to make a mess. If you don’t have to use a bunch of napkins, it's not a good tomato sandwich.”

Alexander prefers the Better Boy tomato while Pierce prefers the Rutgers tomato.

Alexander said he likes to cut the tomatoes in quarter-inch pieces and “pile them high” on his sandwich — there’s a strict two slice minimum.

“It’s a delicious taste of summertime,” Alexander said.

It reminds Pierce of summertime, too.

“I remember in the summer when we would go on vacation and camp,” Pierce said. “I swear, we stayed in a camper on Jekyll Island when I was about 7 years old, and I think that's all we ate all week was tomato sandwiches and nobody complained.”

Thinking back on his younger years, too, Alexander can’t help but be thankful for his grandparents teaching him those valuable lessons he has carried into his adult life. Now, with his own daughter, Briella, who’s 4 months old, he hopes to do the same.

Even if she doesn’t pick up on those lessons until she’s older and even if she doesn’t like tomatoes, Alexander will continue spending his summers eating tomato sandwiches and enjoying every moment.

“More than anything, it’s the sign of summertime and there’s nothing better than getting to eat that homegrown tomato sandwich, because you only get to do it a certain time of the year,” Alexander said.