On White Bread
I ate a tomato sandwich for breakfast. I ate another one for lunch. With real mayonnaise. On white bread. I know all about gluten and whole grains; believe me. My son referred to me once as “the health police” when it came to bread and breakfast-cereal purchases. This coming from a kid who at age nine went through a phase of inspecting my kitchen for cleanliness with a clipboard in hand and grading me according to health department standards. I don’t usually keep white bread in the house, usually meaning in the last ten years.
But it was the Fourth of July and Chilton County peaches were ripe and the recipe for the best cobbler I’ve found calls for a crust made from slices of white bread. Really! So there were a few slices left and a few ripe tomatoes on the counter and I was hungry. I could have just sliced the tomatoes and eaten them with fresh mozzarella and basil, or put them over arugula with lemon vinaigrette, or eaten them with tuna. I know plenty of healthy and up-to-date options for tomatoes. Instead, I smeared Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise on the white slices of Colonial Bread. I sliced my tomatoes thinly and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. I put my sandwich together, cut it in half, and took the first bite.
I was transported.
To my Grandmother Hall’s table on a hot July day.
Those tomatoes were grown in the soil of several generations of Halls. Before that, the Creek Indians tended it, but the ‘light bread’ as she called it was ‘store-bought’ and it was always Colonial. The table was spread at noon in the dining room, which might be a misnomer, as along one wall was a full length deep freezer which doubled as a sideboard from which to serve dessert, a second wall opened directly to their bedroom, and on the other wall was a double window, one of which held a window-unit air conditioner. My seat was usually near the AC so the hum and the chill of that faithful machine are forever tied to my tomato sandwiches.
Grandmother never served only a tomato sandwich for lunch, They accompanied green beans and squash, or corn and friend chicken - every bit of it grown on the land by my granddad and prepared by my grandmother. Except the bread…which was ‘store-bought’. The table was spread and the air-conditioner running after a morning which began at dawn in the fields, picking peas or butterbeans, digging red potatoes and collecting watermelons. By noon we were hot and hungry.
My daughter, recently home from college, has insisted we watch a Netflix documentary named Cooked. This four-part series looks at food in terms of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. I felt somewhat righteous remembering my heritage with homegrown food, remembering gathering eggs with my grandmother or watching her ring a chicken’s neck then pluck its feathers over a fire, and finally cut it up, fry it and serve it for lunch. The air segment gave me pause, though, as I remembered how important air is to the making of bread, real bread, and how the stuff I grew up on, quit eating for years, but totally enjoyed twice in one day on my tomato sandwich is not in fact really bread - not in the purest, historical sense. Not if you look at the ingredient list.
I want to be healthy. I really do. I want to know what I’m eating and recognize the ingredients’ names. I’ve eaten many tomato sandwiches on whole wheat bread with lots of air holes in it, like bread is supposed to have. But those sandwiches, while tasty in their own way, don’t take me anywhere. They’re just food. I can’t hear the hum or feel the chill of the AC. I can’t hear my granddaddy’s same blessing over the table, or see my grandmother laying his tablet by his plate so he won’t forget to take it. I can’t recall the details of that dining room now lost twenty years to a house fire when I eat tomatoes on whole wheat or over arugula with vinaigrette or stuffed with tuna.
I don’t need to go to my grandparent’s dining room table every day. But sometimes I do. I need to find my nine-year-old self and find my mom as a young woman and her parents alive and going ahead of us in the world. And when I do…I’m eating a tomato sandwich with real mayonnaise. On white bread.