Seriously, the tomato sandwiches better be worth the wait this year.
The term “’mater sandwiches” sank into my consciousness a couple of months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop muttering it since. Yes, okay, it was because of TikTok. Apparently the South started preparing for tomato season at the end of April, as explained by someone in a soothing drawl. This included the return of the iconic ’mater sandwich, the quintessential stack of soft white bread, a swipe of mayo and the juiciest tomato you’ve eaten yet this year.
It was gutwrenching to watch from the West, where we still had months to wait for tomatoes here in the Bay Area. Our local season typically starts in July, when sungolds, early girls and heirlooms begin rolling into markets. But this year, the winter rains and cool spring pushed them back. Farmer Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz County reports he’s running a couple of weeks late. He expects the girls to be good in August and great in September, when they’ll be available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and around town.
With his method of dry farming, “you want the plants to be just stressed enough that the end product is a really good tasting tomato,” Schirmer explains. “High acid, high sugar, very mineral.” But he believes the ’maters will be worth the wait. “It’s going to be a good year. It’s just like, come on!”
In the meantime, just think of the sandwiches. I called a southerner — Peterson Harter of Sandy’s, the meaty muffuletta shop in the Haight. Harter grew up in New Orleans and of course has strong feelings about ’mater sandwiches. He’s long been planning to put them on his menu this summer as a seasonal special. “What it means to me specifically is simplicity,” Harter says. “It’s looking at this one ingredient, a perfectly ripe tomato, and keeping it simple.”
Sometimes he stillcraves his family’s classic ’mater sandwich: Bunny bread, Creole tomato, Duke’s mayo, and salt and pepper. Deliberately untoasted, it’s a childishly soft sandwich, with the tomato juices and blobs of mayo running into tender crumbs.
But what is a ’mater sandwich that’s grown up and moved to California? Even after working at star restaurants like The Progress, Harter’s tastes haven’t changed much. For his ’mater sandwiches this summer, he plans to feature bread from a local bakery, perhaps with a slight tang of sourdough. He prefers a big and beefy heirloom tomato, so one satisfying slice reaches the edges of the crust. The Duke’s mayo is not negotiable. The salt might get fancy with flaky Maldon.
He debated adding anchovies or herbs, but couldn’t do it. “There are so many things I could do to that sandwich to technically elevate it,” he says, “but then it’s going away from that purest simplicity.” Then again, if you’re a West Coast kid, there’s more than one way to stack a tomato sandwich. Here are three tantalizing variations for whenever we finally get a taste in San Francisco
This is the original sandwich, only updated with local bread and tomatoes, which Harter plans to serve this season at Sandy’s. Slice but do not toast a couple of pieces of nice soft sandwich bread. Slice one or two big rounds of an heirloom tomato, matching the thickness of the bread and the tomato. Generously spread the bread with Duke’s mayo, top with the tomato slices and sprinkle with Maldon salt.
The next logical version is a BLTA, layering in crisp bacon and buttery avocado – which Harter loves but insists is a completely different sandwich. In this case, toast the sandwich bread. Fry thick-cut bacon until crispy. Thickly slice the heirloom tomato, thinly slice a Brokaw avocado and season with salt and pepper. Spread the toast with Duke’s mayo, and stack with the avocado, tomato, bacon and bibb or butter lettuce (nothing with a rib).
Dungeness Crab Melt
In summery seafood sandwiches, Harter does like tomato on a po’ boy, but the SF contender has to be a gooey crab melt. Toss Dungeness crab meat with Best Foods mayo, a squeeze of lemon and chopped chives. Pile it on a slice of sourdough, top with slices of tomato, season with salt and pepper and cover with thinly sliced sharp Cheddar. Broil just until the Cheddar melts down into the nooks of the tomato. (Four Star and other local markets offer quality frozen Dungeness, and a melt is a lovely way to dress it up during the off season.)
RELATED: Additional recipes in the summer issue:
Kholodnyk (cold borshch) by Anna Voloshyna
Carajillo Granita by Christian Reynoso