People squabble about tomato sandwiches the way they fuss over politics, or which cellphone is better, iPhone or Android?

The classic – some might say cliché – take on the tomato sandwich is that it must be made with a thick slice or two of a freshly picked garden tomato, still warm from the sun and placed between two slices of soft, white bread slathered with mayonnaise, preferably Hellmann’s or Duke’s. (The bread must be soft enough to stick to the roof of your mouth.) A small sprinkling of salt, and you have the best summer treat next to a bowl of homemade ice cream.

Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. I confess this is my favorite way to eat a tomato sandwich, although if it’s dinner time I might sneak in a couple of slices of crispy bacon to add some crunch and make it a little more substantial without taking away from the flavor of the tomato.

I am not opposed to tinkering. If I use the bacon, I might toast the bread as well. Maybe rub a little garlic on it, or add some fresh basil, although that’s getting dangerously close to being a completely different animal – a tomato, basil and mozzarella panini, which is perfectly delicious but not the same thing as a tomato sandwich.

The classic form of the sandwich is what I grew up with in Tennessee. It made me wonder if Mainers make theirs any differently, so I asked around. A lot of people appear to agree with me on the basic ingredients, but then ruin it by mentioning those two obnoxious words: Miracle Whip.

Some people use butter instead of mayo, which sounds like a reasonable alternative. (You’d have to use real butter though, not margarine, which is the Miracle Whip of butters.) And some like to add a slice of cheese.

Others make a mashup of a cucumber sandwich and a tomato sandwich, adding lots of cucumbers to the mix. (Mmm … cucumber sandwiches. That’s a whole other story.)

Kerry Watts of Damariscotta adds spicy mesclun greens. Or if she wants to grill the sandwich, she’ll put her tomato slices on Dave’s Killer Good Seed Bread, along with some fresh mozzarella and homemade pesto. (There’s that panini again.)

Sue Ellen Sevigny, who lives in South Portland, toasts good sourdough bread, stacks it with thin slices of heirloom tomatoes, and then spreads it with Hellmann’s. (Thank you, Sue.) Next comes buttery Boston lettuce and a sprinkle of kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Sometimes, instead of Hellmann’s, she uses a pesto mayo that she makes herself, but always “really good mayonnaise.” See? She gets it.

Sharon Margaronis, who lives in Veazie, uses both butter and Miracle Whip, and occasionally adds cucumber or her favorite green onions dipped in apple cider vinegar. Good idea, Sharon, I’ll forgive you for the Miracle Whip.

If you’re out of mayo and Miracle Whip, says Dana Schauf of Cape Elizabeth, try cream cheese instead.

Perhaps my favorite response was from Anne Oleson in Dixmont, because it brought back a flood of memories. She referenced the tomato sandwich-loving Harriet the Spy, the main character in Louise Fitzhugh’s classic children’s book, who ate a tomato sandwich for lunch every day because, the character said, “it was the best taste in the world.”

“After reading ‘Harriet the Spy,’” Oleson said, “I developed a tomato sandwich habit: whatever tomato there was in the house, sliced, with mayo, between two slices of whatever bread was in the house. That’s all. I was a kid and I loved them.”

I also consulted Sam Hayward, the James Beard Award-winning chef and co-founder of Fore Street restaurant, because of his belief that simple ingredients should be allowed to speak for themselves. He also spent a big part of his life in the South, where tomato sandwiches are as revered as communion wafers.

“Around our home,” he said, “tomato season sees a ramp-up of bacon consumption.”

Hayward and his wife, Jan, prefer bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches for summer lunches. They roast the bacon in the oven instead of frying it in a skillet, and of course he has his favorite brands: Edwards from Virginia, black-peppered, thin-sliced, very smoky; L&P Bisson’s from Topsham, thick-sliced, mildly smoky; or North Country from New Hampshire, very smoky, thick-sliced.

The bread is thinly sliced and toasted. These days, Hayward said, they favor a hearth loaf from Counterpoint Bakery in Bowdoinham.

“The greens are from our own garden,” he said. “I’m partial to spiky arugula or mustard greens with summer tomatoes.”

The tomatoes either come from his own garden or from Merrymeeting Farm, the farm that grows the Jet Star variety used in Fore Street’s summer tomato tart. He sprinkles them with black pepper and crunchy sea salt.

And the mayo? He flavors it with basil, chives, thyme, fresh pesto, garlic scapes, or other herbs.

Finally, who better to consult about building the perfect tomato sandwich than a tomato expert who, in 40 years of gardening, has grown more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes, and written books about them?

That’s Craig LeHoullier, who is from Rhode Island but now lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina, just south of Asheville. LeHoullier is the author of “Epic Tomatoes” (Storey Publishing, 2014); the tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange; and one of “30 Southern Heroes” named by Garden & Gun Magazine.

Asked for his advice, LeHoullier said there are two key aspects to making a perfect tomato sandwich – one has to do with structure, the other with taste.

First, he says, never slice the tomato from the top, where the stem is, down to the blossom area. “I stand it on its side, and I slice down,” he said. “If you look at the slice and it’s almost solid flesh, with just these little packets of seeds sprinkled throughout, that to me is the supreme tomato sandwich tomato.”

The opposite of that would be supermarket tomatoes that, when you cut them, have a central mass in the middle and lots of seeds around the edge. That middle part often just falls out, making your sandwich soggy and the tomato look more like an onion ring, LeHoullier said. Supermarket tomatoes, he griped, are “red, they’re hard, they’re flavorless. Why they exist, I do not know.”

Tomatoes that have the proper structure include heirloom varieties like Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine and Cherokee Purple (which was named by LeHoullier in 1990).

The second criteria for a good tomato sandwich, LeHoullier said, is that it is the “absolute best tomato that you can grow that meets your criteria of what a great tomato tastes like.”

That will be different for everyone because our tastebuds are all slightly different, and we have a tendency to prefer the tastes of our childhood. “Taste is often so tied up with what you loved from your youth,” LeHoullier said.

But the tomato expert admits he would have trouble naming just one ideal variety as his own favorite. He keeps a top 10 list of good-eating tomatoes in his head that rotates regularly. It may include varieties such as Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, Green Giant and Lillian’s Yellow. “I’m happiest when my plate has color on it,” LeHoullier said.

LeHoullier may live in the South now, but his Rhode Island roots show in his tomato sandwiches. He lays the tomato slices on crusty bread and adds some Vermont sharp cheddar. He slathers the bread with butter on the outside, then grills the sandwich until it’s crispy on the outside and the cheese has melted inside. He doesn’t like white bread, and he doesn’t eat mayo.

That’s OK, Craig. As long as you don’t use Miracle Whip.


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