Today I Had a Tomato Craving.
I’m not sure where the Tomato Sandwich lands in the hierarchy of Southern food pyramid, but in my microcosm of Southern farm life as a young girl, I knew summer had officially arrived when with great reverence and pride, my grandmother sat down to her kitchen table with her ages old paring knife to tenderly peel the first harvest of sun-ripened tomatoes my Pop had lovingly nurtured in his large vegetable garden just for her.
She would tell stories that dripped out of her mouth like warm honey as she smeared homemade mayonnaise on sliced white bread and set up sandwiches open-faced on a chipped salad plate before meticulously positioning peeled and thickly sliced tomatoes atop the bread, sprinkling each juicy morsel with salt and pepper before handing the plate proudly over for my enjoyment.
I certainly didn’t appreciate the labor of love that sandwich embodied at the time.
The Tomato Place
Today, I pulled up to a collection of shanties on the side of Highway 61 just south of Vicksburg, Miss., where bright hand painted lettering told me I had arrived at The Tomato Place.
The hour was late for our lunch time, and our entire brood was more than a little famished. Road trips have that effect.
We piled out of the car and meandered through a maze of fresh produce (including rows of plump bright red tomatoes) and piles of fresh breads to discover an almost hidden lunch counter.
About 14 years ago, this location became the permanent home for owner Luke Hughes’ roadside produce business. He called it simply: “The Tomato Place.” An apt name for a business with humble beginnings. Hughes said it all happened “too long ago to remember” when, as a burned out insurance salesman, he took a vacation to Florida. At the recommendation of a friend, Hughes picked strawberries on a farm there “for some extra money.” At the end of the day, his back hurt badly, and he took his pay in berries. He sold the strawberries along the side of the road.
After we ordered our lunch, we tucked ourselves into the back corner of the modge podge seating area to take in the scenery. No air-conditioning here, but the building was oddly well vented with a breeze blowing through it. In fact, we were almost cool in the shade of the large trees and undergrowth that seemed to envelop the property. The space inside the main building where we sat was filled to the brim with a mix-match of painted chairs and tables. The walls and empty spaces were filled further with merchandise ranging from their house-made jams and jellies to the locally ground grits and popcorn to the fresh bakery slicing breads they bring in from New Orleans to the sweet breads and pies they make in house.
Piles of lemons and limes kept patrons from seeing over the lunch counter. Hughes told us that “years ago” his son sent him a lemon juicer – the old fashioned hand pull type. He said he left it in the box unopened for “probably six months.” Today, he said The Tomato Place goes through approximately 100 lemons a day making homemade lemonade for eager patrons.
Then, there’s the smoothie freezer case. If lemonade’s not your thing, The Tomato Place is shelter to a string of several full size freezer cases full of your choice of small or large “homemade smoothies.” Row upon row of clear plastic “to-go cups” are filled mostly with inventive flavors of frozen fresh fruits and veggies stored in the freezers awaiting their “preparation.” I couldn’t resist the simple summer proposition of the Watermelon Smoothie, so I picked my cup out of the freezer, returned it to the lunch counter and watched while it was blended to icey, fruity perfection.
My Tomato Sandwich
Last but not least, there were the tomatoes. I prodded Hughes about the origin of his marquee produce. “As close to here as possible,” he replied. Then added, “Right now, they’re from just down the road here in Mississippi. But year-round, they’re from as close to here as possible and always straight from the farmer.”
We didn’t have long to wait before covered plates arrived at our table. I raised my hand like an excited schoolgirl when the owner’s daughter Mallory called out, “Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato on Wheat?” I teared up a little bit when I saw what was on my plate: a hand peeled, thickly cut slice of sun-ripened tomato bursting from the sides of my sandwich.