The practice of granting a last meal request to a prisoner about to be executed is surely meant to be a gesture of generosity and humanity. It has, however, long struck me as unfair. These people have enough on their minds, and now they are put under pressure to choose the one perfect meal. If you had only one meal to eat, what would it be? You could go with a traditional luxury dish, such as an expensive cut of steak or a succulent Maine lobster. Or maybe you could go with comfort food: spaghetti and meatballs, a cheeseburger and fries, a bowl of sugar cereal. But no matter what you choose, you run the risk of getting this response: “Really? We offer you one final ideal meal of anything you desire and that’s the best you can come up with? We're footing the bill and you hardly need to be concerned about things like trans fat at this point. Ok, we’ll get it for you, if that’s what you want.”
Now, I don’t have any imminent plans to end up on death row, but still I like to be prepared for any contingency that life sends my way. And the question of what I would choose if I had only one meal to eat is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. No longer. I have finally pinpointed the one ideal meal. Simple, inexpensive, delicious, and even complete with nostalgic undertones for me (and I suspect for many others as well). I well remember eating this as a kid on my maternal grandfather’s back porch. He was a prolific gardener with a specialization in tomatoes, and as far as I know this was the only meal that he prepared himself.
The Ideal Meal:
Pop-Pop’s Tomato Sandwich
The recipe is simple, but it must be adhered to strictly with only a few minor variations allowed.
Step One – the foundation: Two slices of sandwich bread. Basic white bread. I am partial to a homemade loaf, very lightly toasted (to add a little texture). Artisanal and crusty loaves have their place. This is not it. Although I usually toast the bread, I also often go untoasted and love the way it sticks to the roof of my mouth.
Step Two – the star of the meal: You need a garden tomato at the peak of its juicy ripeness, sliced nice and thick. This tomato must be picked immediately prior to the meal and the meal must be consumed on the premises where the tomato was grown. There is no room for substitution here. None. Use a day-old tomato and it ceases to be a proper tomato sandwich. Don’t even think about getting one from the grocery store. If you don’t grow your own tomatoes, find someone who does and visit him. And by the way, if you live in a climate in which you can grow tomatoes and don’t grow them, there’s something wrong with you. Overlap the thick slices of your homegrown, garden-fresh tomato slightly on one slice of bread.
Step Three – the accompaniments: A pinch of salt on top of the tomatoes. A few slices of very thinly shaven onions (I prefer a sweet Vidalia). A generous spread of real mayonnaise. That’s it. Nothing more. Do not be tempted to add lettuce or cheese or bacon or cucumbers or anything else. Do not use a mayonnaise substitute. Do not skip the salt. Or the onions. You will have made a different sandwich.
I slice the sandwich into two pieces at a 75 degree angle. Only today did I realize why I carefully select something just off of a 90 degree angle. That’s how my maternal grandfather—who, as far as I’m concerned invented this recipe…although he would have insisted on Wonder Bread and turned his nose up at my homemade substitution—always cut his sandwiches. I imagine he was going for a 90 degree cut, but couldn’t wait long enough to be concerned with precision. I’ll take those few extra seconds to be precisely inprecise for nostalgia’s sake.
The ideal beverage pairing for this dish: a glass of freshly brewed ice tea. Sweet, but not too sweet. With a slice of lemon. Again: no substitutions are permitted.
In my neck of the woods, this meal is typically available only in July and August. So I try to eat a tomato sandwich every day during tomato season. If I do end up needing to request this as a last meal, I guess I might need to apply for a stay-of-execution until mid-summer. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?