Reliving Memory of My First Tomato Sandwich

By Carol Gillentine

Although it’s April as I write this in Greensboro, NC, I’m already contemplating the summer delight we all wait for—tomato sandwiches.

I’m 77 and the thoughts of my first tomato sandwich are as clear today as the day I ate it. I was nine or ten (1949) and sitting at the kitchen table of my aunt’s house in the middle of the day. Too hot to go outside, so I was keeping company with the oscillating fan that was a staple in every home.

My cousin, Mary, and her sister Pat (both in their 20s) were also there. Mary planned to be a farmer like our granddad and she had plowed an acre behind the house just to learn what she could. She came in with a bushel of tomatoes as big as softballs, and the Bermuda onions that were equally as large, and they went to work. Pat washed them while Mary put mayo, bread, salt and pepper on the table.

I guess every family, or at least most families, have heroes, and our family had Pat and Mary. They lived in Quincy, Illinois, and worked at a factory making those nativity plaster figurines that we all bought at the “dime store.” A shanty on the banks of the Mississippi River was their playground. They were still “tom boys” even in their 20’s and we loved them.

Hitchhiking to California to see an uncle was just one of their adventures. Back then (1940s) people weren’t out to rape and kill—there existed a measure of safety in the world. Then there was the time when Mary and a friend went down the Mississippi River in an outboard motorboat to New Orleans. (Quincy is 150 miles north of St. Louis.) After arriving in New Orleans, they sold the boat, bought their bus tickets home, and used the rest of the money for beer, raw oysters, and good times. It was always fun to hear what they would come up with next. There was good reason for us to be in awe of everything they did.

After watching me very neatly spread a thin layer of Mayo on the bread, they realized I needed help creating a proper tomato sandwich. The term “slathering” was introduced as the only way to apply mayo. So, I slathered – thickly. Mary sliced the tomatoes 1/2 inch thick, and Pat sliced the onions so thin you could see through them. The tomato covered the entire piece of bread and what a sight it was, salt and pepper to taste, and the thin onions on top. Meanwhile, they talked and laughed and joked with me. I guess maybe they considered me old enough to hang out with them, which really made me feel special.

I was then given instructions on how to eat a tomato sandwich, which is over the sink with elbows inside to catch the juice running down our arms. Pat and Mary called this “food of the gods.” Three sandwiches later they were even better!

I’m ready to stop at the first roadside stand! How about you?

Carol Gillentine moved to Greensboro from Mobile, Alabama, in 1993 after my obtaining her social work degree. She worked at Hospice in Greensboro until retirement in 2007. Her hobbies include painting, puzzles, writing, genealogy, and visiting with friends. She has two children, two grandchildren, and one great-grand child, all who live nearby.


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