Food & Drink

Tomato Sandwich Rules and Regulations

Because you don’t mess with perfection


“Money can’t buy homegrown tomatoes and good, old friends,” Betty Breeden, a family friend from Laurinburg, North Carolina, recently told me. She’s right—my late father’s garden tomatoes are a taste forever inked in my memory, but for the last three summers, travels have taken me far away from the South, those first ripe tomatoes, and the soft white bread and Duke’s mayonnaise I like to pair with them. It hits hardest when I see friends posting their thirst-trap tomato sandwiches on Instagram.

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What makes a tomato sandwich a proper Southern tomato sandwich? There’s a simple science to it, but I’ve never been able to make it quite right outside the South. I’ve attempted many times abroad, most recently with my friends Franca and Steve Gilbert, who relocated from Tarboro, North Carolina, to Sicily, Italy. The duo run food-centric tours via their company, Sicily Connect

The taste of tomato slathered in mayo is such a part of our summer memories that it’s practically part of our DNA. We were recently homesick in Italy, salivating over tomato sandwich thoughts one sunny afternoon, so we marched down to the produce stand for Sicilian tomatoes and freshly baked bread from the bakery. There’s no Duke’s in Sicily, so Steve’s homemade mayonnaise sufficed. “Mayonnaise and tomatoes are like Romeo and Juliet,” Franca said between bites. “It’s a love story.” There’s never been a truer statement—and as in Shakespeare’s saga, there’s a bit of drama too. Duke’s mayo or another? Soft bread or toasted? Every Southerner has their own opinion when it comes to the art of the perfect tomato sandwich. I polled friends, chefs, and restaurateurs and found that it all boils down to a few important ingredients, discussed below:

White bread is where it’s at.

“Use the cheapest store-brand white bread you can find,” says Bill Smith, previously the chef of the iconic Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Never, ever use any kind of fancy, artisanal loaf.” 

A friend once served me a tomato sandwich on whole wheat bread with nuts and I remember picking the tomatoes off, eating them, and being very salty about the entire situation. However, Stephanie Burt, a writer and the producer of The Southern Fork podcast, does like a little more heft to her white bread: “It can’t be the kind that creates a gummy mess, so a soft but structured sliceable bread is the best,” she says. “But not anything with too many seeds or with a rough texture that will scrape the roof of my mouth.” 

Only perfectly ripened garden tomatoes will do.

“I wait until I see that tomato that whispers, it’s sandwich time,” Burt says. “That tomato is frequently a Cherokee Purple, and it’s always from a farm stand or a friend’s garden and has preferably come home with me in a reused grocery store bag sitting on the front seat,” she explains. “The tomato that whispers has never seen the inside of a fridge or cooler truck.”

In other words, a grocery store’s shipped-in tomato will not suffice. Chef William Dissen of the Market Place in Asheville, North Carolina, and Haymaker in Charlotte proclaims that “heirloom tomatoes are the quintessential ingredient of the summer.” He advises: “Pick them from the plant when they are so ripe they are literally bursting with flavor, bright in color, and heavy for their size.”

Size matters and the size is called “thick.” 

Dissen’s rule of thumb: “Sliced thick and dressed simply with salt and pepper.” 

Burt has a special trick for keeping the whole thing intact: “Falling out is a true concern since the tomato is ripe and juicy, and that juice mixes with the Duke’s mayo on both sides of the bread,” she explains. “I like two half-inch slices of tomato, cut in half—like a half-moon—to better ensure that if they do fall out, it won’t take down the whole sandwich.”

Thick slices served open-faced on one slice of bread are fine—as long as said open-faced sandwich is quickly followed up by a second helping.

Mayo matters.

I asked friends on Facebook how they make tomato sandwiches, and the tips from Southerners overwhelmingly included Duke’s mayonnaise. “If it were French bread, Hellmann’s, and a good tomato you would get a pass—but we all want squishy white bread and Duke’s,” says Audre Langebartel, a friend in Charleston, South Carolina.

Bill Smith won’t join the debate. “First of all, I refuse to fight over mayonnaise,” he says. “There are real-world problems [and] this isn’t one of them. Just use what your grandmother used.” He recently tried something new to him: “There was a Mexican kid camped at my house for a while when he was looking for a place. He would buy McCormick’s made with lime juice. I’d never heard of it, but it was good.”

I grew up in a house divided by mayo. Mom, from the North, loved Kraft, while my late father was Duke’s all the way. I am team Duke’s but can make an exception for Kewpie, the umami-rich, tangy Japanese mayo. Chris Coleman, the chef at The Goodyear House in Charlotte, leans towards Duke’s but says Kewpie and a little bit of lemon juice are pretty tasty. Chef Dean Neff, of Seabird in Wilmington, North Carolina, teeters back and forth between Duke’s and Hellmann’s—Hellmann’s if just tomatoes and bread; Duke’s if bacon is involved, as it’s richer. 

Add salt and pepper and not much else. 

“I season with salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne—a trick from my favorite ex-husband that has lingered longer than our relationship—and I never want to see any kind of lettuce or cheese tucked in,” Burt says. “Those are for the BLT and it is a lovely variation, but that first tomato sandwich is always just bread, tomatoes, Duke’s, and seasoning—served with original Lay’s potato chips.”

Lynn Wells, a personal chef in Greensboro, North Carolina, shared her perfect recipe, which echoed many others’ preferences: “Wonder Bread, Merita, or Bunny Bread with Duke’s slathered on both sides, then a one-inch-thick slice of a Cherokee Purple tomato, dash of flake salt, and freshly ground black pepper.” Nothing less and nothing more—“Just don’t eat it wearing a white shirt.”