It is August
now. By eight o'clock in the morning the sun is a thermonuclear blur in a radioactive sky. The days exhaust themselves to a soundtrack of insectile buzzes and whirs; the nights settle into an uneasy slumber punctuated by the lazy howl of coyotes and the sudden-death rasps of screech owls
I have never spent summer in the desert before. I am unused to the dry and ruthless heat and have come to deeply distrust the old saying that "it's not the heat, it's the humidity". (Nope, it's the heat.) The deepest parts of me grieve for Southern humidity, for sea-scented waves of blazing moisture on my face in the morning. The weather I tried to escape every summer for a million years is now what haunts me.
But the saving grace of Eastern Oregon is that this soil holds a secret: when watered with loving care, it is some of the richest, most productive dirt in the world. Water here is rationed as though we are all shipwrecked. Farmers are allowed this much and no more, and they do all they can to stretch the resources alotted them. The topsoil is good enough to package and sell on its own.
This, my friends, makes desert produce a very special thing indeed.
Ears of corn perch on their stalks, impossibly silvergold, fine soft cornsilk veiling plump kernels bursting with ambrosial juice. The kernels pop and explode under your teeth with milkysweet abandon. Mint fields are releasing their essence; I pass them at day's end with my car windows down and allow the peppery herbal tide to wash over me like an alien sea.
But what excites me - what whispers to me of summer - are the tomatoes and the onions.
The tomatoes? What's important here isn't the variety of tomatoes you use but how they are grown and when you pick them. Make the acquaintance of a friendly farmer's wife who grows them outside her kitchen window in a small vegetable patch. Better yet, cultivate the seedlings yourself next spring and enjoy the way the vines to fill your backyard with their pungent perfume as they grow. Keep the birds and the bugs away and allow the fruit to grow pregnant and ripe on the vine. Don't steal them from the plant until they are the deep and rollicking red of a whore's blush and they fall into your hand at the merest touch. Pick them in the late afternoon so that they've had the chance to absorb one last full day of sunshine and summertime. Let them be warm from the garden, warm as your own blood.
The onions are a little bit trickier. Commercial onions - the yellow globe variety or the paper-skinned whites - just won't do here. You need an onion that will sing a mild duet with the tomato, allow the unctuous red flesh to release its lush juices without getting in the way of that sweetly acidic flavor. Think crunch and sugar. You need a Vidalia, a Maui Sweet, a Walla Walla. Find these babies at farmer's markets and splurge, because they are worth every penny.
For the longest time I thought a Sink Sandwich was a purely and exclusively Southern delight. But just as mint juleps and fried oysters are no longer a province of the South, just as grits are sweeping the nation's great restaurants, it has occurred to me that this seasonal delicacy from my childhood in the South may be enjoyed anywhere you can find excellent produce.
I won't be a complete Nazi about this recipe. If you must, you can tart it up with bacon or ham, add avocado, strew it with sprouts, line the bread with fragrant baby basil leaves. The only non-negotiable factor is that the tomatoes really must be homegrown - preferably heirloom - pesticide-free and fresh from a garden. But I will say this: to truly experience summer at its finest with no bells and whistles save what Mother Nature has already installed, try this sandwich as is.
You will need:
- Good, soft white bread
- The best ripe red homegrown tomatoes you can buy or steal
- The sweetest, crunchiest onions you can get your paws on - you want to be able to eat them out of hand like a ripe peach. Chill them a bit in the fridge before you slice them up
- Mayonnaise (Make your own, please! GrouchyOldMan's recipe right here is really excellent. It isn't difficult, it is so much tastier, and if you want to get creative with flavors you really can't beat adding tasty herbs and spices to your homemade mayo. But if you refuse, use Hellmann's.)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Okay, this is the fun part.
If you are using commercially produced bread, I sincerely hope you have a loaf of Captain John Durst's. If not, any good bakery-quality bread will do, but (as with the mayo) homemade is vastly superior. I like my bread a little bit chewy, but not so chewy that it takes much effort to bite into. Challah bread is surprisingly good; it has a bit of a bite to it and a subtle sweetness that complements the tomatoes. Sourdough? The jury's out there. It can be a little too chewy and tart, but if you find a nice soft mild loaf it can be heavenly.
Cut your sun-warmed tomatoes and iceboxed onions into slices generous as your mama's love. You want the tomatoes to squirt and the lightly chilled onions to crunch real loud, y'hear?
Slice the bread thick enough to sop up all that juice.
Smear a lot of mayo on the slices. If you think you have enough, you don't. A little more. That's good. You want the 'maters and onions to sort of slide around on the bread. Yeah, that much mayo.
Carefully pile up the sweet onion and tomato slices on the mayonnaise-smeared bread. Add more mayonnaise if you'd like to (and I always do). Add the teeniest bit of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Do not adulterate with mustard or cheese or anything else at all. That would be a Bad Idea.
Smish the bread down until you can fit your happy face around all that goodness.
Bring the whole lovely mess over to the sink. You have to eat it over the sink - hence "Sink Sandwich" - to let all the deliciousness ooze down your arms. Make sure to lick the juice off your arms when no one's looking. Napkins are for sucks. Have a Mason jarful of sweet tea by the sink to wash it all down with.
In your mouth it is fifteen flavors of happy. The sweet crunch of the chilled onion, the rich juices of the warm tomatoes, the thick homemade mayonnaise, the yeasty goodness of great bread...it all combines to create something much more delicious than the sum of its parts.
This is not a tea sandwich. Do not try to make it for lunch with your friends. It is not meant for anyone other than yourself. Eat it alone. Chew it slowly. Savor every bite while you listen to the Zen droning of the cicadas. Let the juice drip into the sink and allow your eyes to unfocus. It is a summertime indulgence, like floating down a lazy river on an inner tube or sleeping in a hammock. It is just and only for you.
This time of year I am making these things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's purely seasonal and decadent in its simplicity. It is summer on bread. It tastes like nothing else on God's green earth and it makes me believe that there is a very benevolent being somewhere out there who is responsible for tomatoes and Vidalia onions and summertime and my mom.
It tastes like the South. It tastes like summertime. It tastes like my childhood.
To order some really good heirloom tomato seeds, try this site: http://www.ghorganics.com/heirloom_tomatoes.htm
Also, doyle says: re Sink Sandwich: If folks want heirloom tomato seeds, I usually have extras in March. Just have them give me a hollah.... Thanks, doyle!