Though this story is really about the search for the perfect summer-ripe tomato, it begins with mayonnaise.
As a kid, I used to love to eat mayonnaise sandwiches. It’s true.
Maybe for the mayonnaise-averse this seems like a terrifying and entirely unappetizing prospect, but for me, it was a delight.
First of all, the mayonnaise had to be Hellmann’s. None of that sickly sweet-tasting (to me, at least) Miracle Whip was getting past these lips. Somehow, I could also always detect whether the store brand stuff had been used instead, and that wasn’t good enough either.
There was something special about that unique Hellmann’s blend of egg, sugar, salt, lemon juice, and oil. Even when I (occasionally) take the time to make my own homemade mayo at home today, it’s just not the same.
A Matter of Branding
I wouldn’t say I’m brand-obsessed, but sometimes those flavors that we associate so deeply with childhood stick with us through the years. They’re impossible to substitute, and many of us jump at the chance to replicate those feelings, if the opportunity arises.
You can imagine my horror when I ventured across the country for the first time, leaving the east coast for California where my husband was about to start a new job.
Fresh out of grad school, and though I was a “world traveler” as my mom likes to say (after several trips not only all up and down the east coast, but across the ocean to various European countries and way up north to Montreal, too), I had never been further west at that point in my life than Tennessee.
Within hours of our arrival in the Golden State, my husband and I enacted a sort of ritual. Though it’s not particularly exotic, and far from entertaining for most people, we did what I love to do in every new place that we visit (or in this case, come to call home):
We went grocery shopping.
New Vacation Craze?
Maybe I’m weird, but visiting grocery stores in new places is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Farmers markets rank high on the list as well, but they serve as actual destinations for many travelers. Grocery stores, on the other hand, are not exactly tourist attractions.
For me, part of the allure of checking out the local supermarket in a new place is that chance to get a true slice of life, to live the way the locals do and eat what they eat.
I love walking up and down the aisles, checking out the featured displays and baked goods, the pre-made salads and the candy.
I even like to indulge in things that I only consume one or two (okay, more like five or six?) times a year, like soda, just to see if there’s a flavor available from a company that I’ve never heard of (or only read about in books!) that I’ve never had the opportunity to try before.
Grocery stores give me a taste of the local flavor, the regional items that are still too tough to ship to all fifty states or the oldies-but-goodies that still exist at a local level, but that are unable to compete for shelf space with the Cokes and Pepsis and Cadburys of the world.
Usually, on these trips, I delight in the new and as-yet undiscovered. But in this particular case, I quickly realized that something very important was missing.
All of My Favorite Foods are Gone!
If you’ve never heard of any of these, I assure you, you are missing out.
These tastes of home – made in Jersey and Pennsylvania – hadn’t been available during my multi-year stint up in Boston during grad school either, and I’d adjusted (by ordering chips by the case, getting my aunt to send me care packages filled with local sweets, and bingeing on local specialties every time I was home). I’d learned how to deal with this.
The problem in California was that my beloved mayonnaise was missing.
… Or was it?
Mayo in Disguise
As I scanned the shelf for the Hellmann’s, I saw another jar with a blue and yellow label, tied with a blue printed-on ribbon, but it was not called Hellmann’s.
No, the Hellmann’s name had been entirely erased. And in its place I read: Best Foods.
Say what? This was a new one.
Wondering how this could possibly be:
- Was Hellmann’s somehow bought out and all the jars banished from the shelves and replaced with new ones bearing the name of their new overlord in the time that it took for me to travel from one side of the country to the other?
- Was another product with long standing also produced by a well-known Hellmann in California?
- Did Californians simply not like Germans???
I hesitated before gingerly placing a jar in my cart.
The verdict was:
It tasted exactly the same.
A Brand by Any Other Name
According to a piece that ran in the Huffington Post, Hellmann’s was in fact bought out—in 1932.
Here’s a quick synopsis of what went down in the years to follow:
• Hellmann’s was doing well on the east coast at the time, so it didn’t seem like a good idea to force the name change.
• The blue ribbon didn’t appear on packaging found on both coasts until 1968, also original to the Hellmann’s brand.
• In 2000 Unilever bought Best Foods, and in 2007 they apparently decided to make the labels on the mayo identical (except for the name).
I was entirely unaware of all of this.
This article also mentions that some people think Best Foods and Hellmann’s mayo use slightly different recipes, and that they can taste the difference. I beg to differ.
Okay, so back to the mayonnaise sandwiches.
In Search of a Better Sandwich
I definitely didn’t eat them regularly—my health-conscious mother and grandmother wouldn’t have allowed that.
In fact, I didn’t really eat them as any sort of “meal replacement” to begin with. Sometimes I really just liked to slather my Kaiser or onion or snowflake roll with mayo and chow down, leaving a pile of lettuce and tomato and cold cuts on the side to eat later.
Little by little, this bread and unctuous condiment obsession (doughy, salty, fatty and a bit sweet—what’s not to love?) transformed into a desire for something more substantive, something more adult, something more… sandwich-like.
That was when I started adding thick slices of tomato to my mayonnaise sandwiches.
The Perfect Tomato…
Within the realm of summertime tomato eating, at least where I’m from, there are rules.
Whether you grow these juicy orbs in your own backyard or pick them up from a farm stand on your way back from the Jersey shore, perfect tomatoes should be eaten as quickly as possible and never refrigerated.
Perfect summertime tomatoes are a gift, a representation of an idea. These are tomatoes as they should be.
Perfect tomatoes are not mealy or slimy, lacking color or juice (and especially the juice, which can be delicious in a healthy homemade V8-style tomato juice). Instead they’re rich and flavorful, and the seeds will dribble down your chin if you bite into one just picked from the garden, still warm from the heat of the summer sun.
Though a fresh homemade marinara sauce is impressive, that’s not what sun-ripened beefsteak or Jersey or heirloom tomatoes are for. They’re for slicing and eating, maybe with a little bit of salt, sometimes on their own but usually as a welcome addition to a tasty sandwich.
Sometimes, if you’re a true tomato aficionado, perfect tomatoes remain the star of the show on a tomato sandwich.
Again, freshness is key here and there’s no need for cooking. I’m not talking about a grilled cheese with garden tomato (though those are nice). I don’t mean a crusty bagel slathered with a smear of cream cheese and topped with a few thick slices of tomato either (though those can be great, too).
No, I’m talking about the tomato sandwich, nothing more and nothing less.
… And the Perfect Tomato Sandwich
When it comes to the perfect summertime tomato sandwich, if you’re not a mayonnaise lover, you’re not going to like it.
And I wish you luck, because in my opinion, an aversion to mayonnaise is a sad thing indeed (but, to each his own).
The mayonnaise creates the perfect salty, creamy, fatty counterpoint to the juicy, sweet, acidic tomato. Spread it on bread (sourdough is nice, or any of the many aforementioned types of roll) and layer on the tomatoes.
Sometimes I like to alternate juicy, thick slices of zebra, pineapple and Cherokee purple tomatoes for a visually stunning rainbow of tomato goodness. If you want, add just a sprinkling of flaked or coarse salt (maybe a little fleur de sel or sel gris) and you’re ready to go.
Sure, basil and mozzarella with tomato is a nice combo if that’s your thing. I’m partial to tomato on a tuna melt or a club sandwich, a BLT, or even a ham and swiss myself.
But this particular sandwich… it just screams summer.
Flavor You Can Taste
So, back to flavor.
If you’ll rewind with me for a moment, the issue at hand when I discovered that the Californians had messed with my mayonnaise came down to flavor.
What I feared most in the world as I hesitantly reached for that jar labeled “Best Foods” and placed it in my cart was that it would not in fact be the same thing as what I was used to and knew so well and loved, and that I would have to suffer without normal/real/tasty mayonnaise for the duration of my time in California, with no clear end date in sight.
Not officially a deal breaker but… sort of a deal breaker?
… I mean, my husband was only my fiance at the time… (I kid! I kid!)
But really, once I got that jar home and cautiously slathered some on bread—
(Okay, I’ll be honest—I dipped a spoon in and licked the mayo straight off the spoon to do my taste test.
Is this weird?
Full disclosure: I eat peanut butter straight off the spoon too, probably way more often than I should within the supposed bounds of “normalcy” and perhaps acceptable daily fat intake. Now you know. Please get over it.)
—With a sigh of relief, I knew I would be able to stay in California because that mayonnaise with the weird name tasted the way it was supposed to.
As for the local tomatoes, that was a different story.
What’s Up With California Tomatoes?
The problem here mostly has to do with the rain. Or rather, the lack of rain.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably heard about the multi-year drought that we’re currently in the middle of in California. (In case you missed it, take a moment to catch up a bit here, here and here).
Tomatoes don’t really like drought, and though some farmers are successfully embarking on a new adventure called dry farming, often claiming that it actually enhances the tomato flavor of their crops, these specialists are currently few and far between.
In general, tomatoes and other crops that require a lot of water to grow are suffering.
While the tomatoes back home on the east coast are flourishing, the ones that I’ve found lately in the regular grocery store here in California are mealy and pale. In my mind, this is entirely unacceptable in the middle of August.
Based on my own observation, the bulk of these tomatoes are probably coming from somewhere else, often outside the US. They’re being shipped long distances and losing the integrity of their flavor and structure along the way.
Meanwhile, in the mid-Atlantic…
But back to those east coast tomatoes for a second—though I had a few delicious specimens (and only a few, since my bout with acid reflux is currently back with a vengeance—but that’s a different story!) when I was visiting my family this summer (mostly grown by my stepfather, in glorious abundance—they’ve even laid claim to the same territory as the rose bushes in the front yard!) and saw quite a few more at the local farm stands and farmers markets, many tomato lovers in the mid-Atlantic region claim something important is missing, and it has been for a long time.
Basically, they’re lamenting the plight of the true Jersey tomato. Though the farm stands are packed to the gills with enticing red (and green and yellow and orange and purple….) orbs, they’re just not the same as the perfect tomatoes that I remember from my childhood, and even more so, not the same as those who came generations before me remember from their childhoods.
The classic “Jersey tomato” had a specific flavor and texture that has largely been bred out of our tomatoes today.
Commercial growers specialize in selling huge volumes of product, and tomatoes without reliable traits that support high yields and long shelf lives simply aren’t sustainable. And so, many of the most beloved flavor characteristics of tomatoes have been bred out and lost over the years.
In fact, that’s why heirloom tomatoes have seen such a comeback. Grown from seeds passed down through the generations, tomato lovers who seek these out claim they have qualities of taste and texture that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Heirlooms tend to spoil quickly (though this is often not the case when it comes to commercial “heirloom” varieties), so they’re difficult to sell in volume or to ship long distances. However, they do extremely well in the local farm market circuit.
Desperately Seeking Jersey Tomatoes
The thing is, though heirlooms come in many varieties, the classic Jersey tomato is something altogether different, and far more perfect according to those who wax nostalgic as they look longingly into the middle distance, remembering this tasty tomato of the past.
If you took a moment to check out the link posted above, when I first mentioned the fans of this tomato who are lamenting its plight, then you already know there are growers at Rutgers University who have been tinkering with tomato varieties to bring back that lost flavor.
Though it may be impossible to truly replicate, they’re fighting to grow a new tomato that reminds fans of the Jersey of the old one, one that’s bright red when ripe, with certain qualities of sweetness and acidity that are reminiscent of the “real thing.”
I shuddered at the thought of losing the taste of my beloved mayonnaise, and I’m saddened to think that the tomatoes that I’m able to get in California today simply aren’t as good as the ones I get at home due to the weather, but I wonder:
Is recreating the flavor of a lost tomato a worthy cause?
Does the perfect tomato really exist only in the past, and in our memories?
So much of our love of and desire for food is tied up in ideas about authenticity, and feelings of nostalgia. The sensory experiences that we have when we try certain foods for the first time, or over and over again throughout our lives, create deep grooves of lasting memory.
This seems to be true for just about everyone, whether or not you’re a fan of tomatoes or mayonnaise or even snowflake rolls.
But the thing is, you know what those favorites are, what it is that you’re willing to drive out of state for or when it’s worth it to pay more for airmail shipping on dry ice than you’ve paid for the actual product.
This is what the quest for the perfect tomato truly is; this is the essence of the foodie.
Got a bone to pick with the word foodie? Are tomato sandwiches your jam? (Or maybe you prefer scooping out the insides, and filling them up with tuna salad or something instead?)
Or do you want to share your latest treatise on why mayonnaise absolutely must be banned immediately? Feel free to share all of this and more with me in the comments.
About Allison Sidhu
Allison M. Sidhu is a foodie from Philly who is based in Los Angeles, where she loves exploring the local restaurant scene with her best buds. She holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and an MA in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen whipping up something tasty (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she does the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her keyboard, chilling in the garden, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a food-filled magazine at the beach.