Big and Ugly: The Brando of Tomatoes
These are the days, these late-spring scorchers that give way to the salubrious heat of summer, that the best of North Carolina’s bounty come to fruition. It is time, my friends, to go to the farmers market.
There are many reasons for this, but the most compelling is that strange fruit the tomato, also called the “love apple” or the “wolf peach” back when they were thought to be poisonous. Legend has it that in the 1820s Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, as a publicity stunt, ate an entire basket of the things before a transfixed crowd, all of whom expected he’d die from “brain fever” or that his skin would stick to his stomach.
They were, of course, disappointed.
Where would our national cuisine be without the tomato? No ketchup or marinara sauce, no tomato salad or salsa. And my favorite sandwich, the bacon, lettuce and tomato, would be a soulless piece of pablum unworthy, even, of an acronym.
And today, at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, I am going to assemble the best BLT in the world, my own take on the classic sandwich assembled with locally produced ingredients and, I won’t hesitate to add, more than a little love.
Some purists herald the onset of tomato season with ritual consumption of the Southern classic: the tomato sandwich, the fruit sliced into thick medallions, placed on slices of good bread with Duke’s mayonnaise and a little salt and pepper.
Which is fine. But not for me, not today.
I load up on staples. First, a loaf of 7-grain bread from the Berry Patch goes into my bag. Then I procure a piece of Foothills pork sidemeat, sugar-cured in Jonesville, NC and sliced thick with a dusting of black pepper on the rind.
It may surprise some that I don’t use lettuce in my BLT. I have my reasons. For one, iceberg lettuce is the junk food of the fresh vegetable world, comprised mainly of water and cellulose with no real nutritional value. And sure, I could use Romaine or bibb, a mesclun mix or even baby spinach. But I’m not gonna do that. Instead I buy a giant North Carolina cabbage that looks like a big, green flower. Cabbage has more crunch than any lettuce; it keeps better and is high in Vitamins C, A and a few of the Bs. It also has better flavor – cabbage is derived from wild mustard and when eaten raw it has a spicy, radish-like flavor.
As for tomatoes, my decision is an easy one.
For the first time this year the German Johnsons are on display in great numbers at the Farmers market. I settle in front of a booth run by Stan and Melissa Beam of Lick Fork Farm in Cherryville, where I lay eyes on the biggest and ugliest German Johnsons I’ve seen in a while.
They are something like the Brando of tomatoes.
“They’re an heirloom variety,” Stan says. “They have little or no disease resistance, and they don’t yield that much. They don’t hold up well, so you can’t ship them, and they’ve not been genetically manipulated, which is probably why they have that rich taste. And it’s proof they’re homegrown, because you’re not gonna go to a packing house and get German Johnsons.
“They’re really known in this market,” he adds. “Back in the western part of the state, where we’re from they’re just not that popular.”
I choose a hideous one with scars on its bottom, and when I get it home and slice it open it’s so red and juicy inside it looks like I’ve killed something.
I cook the bacon slowly, painstakingly, and slice the bread in half-inch increments. I shred the cabbage. And then I assemble my sandwich – no mayonnaise, I’m off mayonnaise.
The result is a towering stack of local warm-weather goodness, and I hurry to eat it before the tomato seeps through the bread.
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