Zen and the Art of the Southern Tomato Sandwich

Mayo, Creole French Bread, Homestead Heirloom Tomato, and a pair of Buddhist cookbooks. Is this why Bodhidharma went to China?

Robert Pirsig, author of the fascinating and riveting book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, literally had a breakdown trying to answer the question of, What is quality? If only he had known about a really good tomato sandwich. This three ingredient sandwich is the equivalent of Southern Zen–if done properly. Here’s how I make it.

Ingredients

Heirloom Tomatoes, preferably home or locally grown

Sliced and Toasted Creole French Bread

Mayonnaise (I will learn to make this one day, with the hope that I don’t become as obsessed by it as Julia Child did)

Simple? Yes, but everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. Most generic recipes sound like they are stuck in the 1970’s. Here’s the usual.

Ingredients

Supermarket Tomatoes

White Sliced Bread (the kind that comes in a plastic bag)

Mayonnaise

So much is wrong here, that it is difficult to know where to start. I will begin with the low hanging fruit. I had students tell me that they didn’t like tomatoes, after I brought up this controversial sandwich. My immediate question was, Have you ever had a tomato that didn’t come from the supermarket? The answer was always no.

The reason for their response is that essentially all supermarket tomatoes, despite their appearance, are green. The practice of gassing tomatoes with ethylene became commonplace in the 1970’s, and ethylene is a gas that turns green tomatoes red, even though they are still completely unripe. Try a slice of that on your BLT, and tell me what you think of tomatoes.

As far as bread in a plastic bag goes, first, buy as few things packed in plastic as you can. That white bread is practically embalmed anyway, considering how many preservatives it has in it. Topped with a good tomato that sandwich will still be good, as another major ingredient of that white bread is air, which is pumped into the dough.

There are all sorts of superfluous additions to this sandwich, but I only consider three to be appropriate.

Salt

Olive Oil

Fresh Basil

If you want to add something like avocado, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it a tomato sandwich. Your zen is all gone. One of my favorite zen riddles has to do with the master who asked a novice the meaning of zen. The novice said that all was emptiness. The master just grabbed a stick, and gave the student a giant whack, which made the student really angry.

The master just said, “If all is emptiness, then were does your anger come from?” Enough said.

Pear Honey

Great Pear

As far as is known, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder published the first pear recipe, where he stated that they should be stewed with honey. Modern pear honey recipes omit the honey, but I’m going old school all the way back to the Roman Empire. I’m bringing back the honey.

Ingredients

6 Bartlett Pears, peeled, cored, and sliced

1 Meyer Lemon

1/4 cup Honey

2 cups Sugar

My six pears cost a whopping two bucks at the Festhalle Farmer’s market, and the honey was local as well. My wife Melanie Jane grew that enormous Meyer lemon, and the sugar came from Sugarland, Texas: old school and down home.

I began with cooking the honey, sliced pears, and the complete interior of the Meyer lemon, minus the seeds. Hint: if you freeze the lemon first, and then cut it in half, the peel comes off all in one piece. Add the sugar, and get ready to go do something else.

A Saucier full of Pears

Cooking Time

2 1/2 Days (Correction: 2 1/2 Hours)

This would be an excellent time to go and write some on that novel that you have been putting off, which is something of a shameless plug, as I am half way through writing a novel that deals with food and mental therapy. To me, good food is the best therapy around.

Don’t forget to stir this occasionally, especially toward the end of the cooking, as it turns into pear syrup. After two and a half hours I brought out our most medieval potato masher, and turned this into the consistency of a really thick honey. All that was left was three half pints, processed in a hot water bath.

The Color You should Look for

It appears those Romans were pretty smart after all.

Pink Eye Purple Hull Peas

Still More to Shell

Carolus Linnaeus was a great benefactor of mankind, who invented the system of binomial nomenclature of plants and animals. Now we know that Vigna unguiculata is not the same as green peas, though they share a common name. This particular pea was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, whose cultivation of it caught the eyes of the slaveholders. Cowpeas, as they are also known, were described by Thomas Jefferson in 1798 as a veg that “is very productive [and an] excellent food for man and beast.” 

This is a simple veg to cook, though it is starchy and takes some time. Water, salt, and some good seasoning meat, are all that is needed. This particular variety is the most popular, though the other varieties of cowpeas are remarkably different in taste and texture. If you see any cowpea for sale, buy them in bulk and freeze them, as frozen cowpeas are almost as good as fresh ones.

Apple Lemon Marmalade

Gather Ye Rosebuds while Ye May. Or Apples

Canning season is here with a vengeance, and it’s time to get it done. This could just as easily be called preserves, but the whole lemon adds some punch to it. Jane Grigson, in her great Book of European Cookery says the word marmalade comes the Assyrian and Babylonian word for quince, which she spells as marmahu. Quince preserves were a staple of my childhood, so I will call this a marmalade. This recipe would work well with those as well, if you can find any. And no, I did not grow up in Babylon.

Ingredients

5-6 tart Apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

1 Meyer Lemon

Juice of 1 Key Lime

1 1/2 cups Sugar

1/2 cup Water

The five big apples I used cost a whopping two bucks at the Festhalle Farmer’s Market. Use all the lemon, except for the zest and seeds, but definitely include the pulp. The lime is optional, but I have bags of them, and they add some more zing.

Combine the sugar with the lemon and lime combo, and heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the sliced apples and water, and cook for ten to fifteen minutes. I don’t want either applesauce or baby food, so I end up on the shorter time line.

The option is to mash this or not, so I used a less aggressive potato masher on this batch. No extra fruit pectin is needed, so just put the fruit into jars and run through a hot water bath.

Technology that Works

This concoction could be served at any meal, and I will try it on both biscuits and pork tenderloin. I may save some for filling my Linzer Augen (Linzer Cookies, though the literal translation is Linzer Eyes) at Christmas. I could even go all out, and have some cookies filled with apple, some filled with peach, and some filled with fig, preserves.

Southern Frat Boy Sticks Bottle Rocket up his Butt, Lights it, and Gets Sued

Don’t Leave Home without These

If only I could make up things this good, Robert Ludlum would be out of the writing business.

Since this has to do with a distilled or cooked grain, and possibly a smoked herb, I find this story to be fair game for a food blog. That, and it is something of a classic Southern story of the inexplicable.

Culled from one of my favorite mags, The Atlantic, that has published such writers as Twain and Hemingway, this classic hails from 2011. A West Virginia college frat was hosting a party, when one of the mentally altered guests decided to go out on their deck and stick a bottle rocket in his anus. I actually could not determine which way he stuck it in there, business end or stick end, but enquiring minds want to know.

As this was at a college, naturally there was someone filming the whole thing with a phone. After the genius lit the fuse, the phone guy became so excited he fell off the deck, and found himself lodged between the wall of the building and the heat pump. Naturally, he sued BOTH the frat and the guy with the butt rocket, for damages. The case was settled out of court.

I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare: “I am amazed and know not what to say.”

Southern Vegetable Soup

Southern Vegetable Soup, Just getting Started

Here’s an old family recipe, created out of the necessity of eating only vegetables. As it so happens, it turns out to be, and I am actually understating this here, unbelievably good. Our vegetables play well together.

I have Died, and Gone to Vegetable Heaven

Create your own version out of whatever you have, but this is ours. Using what you got is the secret to good food. Quantities are based on how much you have.

Ingredients

Chicken Stock

1 Vidalia Onion, diced

Butter Beans

Field Peas

Tomatoes

Okra. sliced

Sweet Corn, cut from the cob

Salt and Pepper

Except for the seasoning, ingredients are cooked in that order. This is truly a dish of high summer, when all these things are in season at once. I now mill my tomatoes in a food mill, so the okra seeds get to be the star. The kicker is when all this is cooked, add:

Wide Egg Noodles

The extra starch does some magical something or other, and adds a little who knows what. Wait, that’s called flavor. Ideally, serve with a hot piece of:

Corn Bread

We’re talking a real melting pot here, Southern Cucina Povera. We freeze some for the winter, and days when you think it will never be warm again. Freeze it without the noodles, and add those only when you cook it. This soup is the boss, the mac daddy, and the kiss my butt on twentieth street shut your mouth cheap talk at the table stopper. That last one is something of a Birmingham thing.

An Old Farm Boy Discusses Hoya about Chickens on the Interwebs

Gott in Himmel! A Chicken on a Red Wheelbarrow, Surrounded by Grass Clippings, and Next to a Compost Bin made of Chicken Wire

As an old farm boy, I am endlessly amused by the farming experts on the interwebs, especially those who have no idea what they are talking about. That would be most of them. To paraphrase Nate Silver, the average expert, on their best day, is as accurate as a coin toss. I think that’s being a little generous.

The great Congressman Mo Udall once famously said, “I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.” Considered to be too funny to become president, he told the all time greatest story about Hoya.

He claimed to have given a speech to a group of Native Americans, and every time he made a promise the whole crowd would yell, “Hoya! Hoya! Hoya!” He thought his speech had been a killer, when he was invited to have a look at their ponies afterwards. As he was walking into the horse pen, the chief told him, “Be careful not to step in the Hoya.” There’s a lot of Hoya out there.

Here are my two favorite Hoya’s about chickens, having grown up on a farm where we had 10,000 chickens a year.

Hoya 1: Grass clippings will kill chickens.

Hoya! The only things chickens like better than grass clippings are food, and chicken sex. Kind of like people, except for the chicken sex part. BTW, my clippings are produced by an electric mower, which is recharged with a solar generator.

Hoya 2: Chicken wire isn’t strong enough to keep chickens from escaping.

Hoya! Our 10K chickens never once broke through chicken wire, and we raised hatching eggs, which meant we had roosters that were almost ten pounds. They were mean buggers, and would slam each other into the wire. Maybe I slammed a few into the wire as well, after they attacked me. I disremember.

So use experience as a guide. Chickens survived millennia of evolution because they aren’t stupid. I refuse to comment on the same topic concerning humans. See: Deniers of Anthropomorphic Climate Disturbance, aka Global Warming.