I am able to survive our wretched Louisiana summer because of the Creole tomato. The humidity is always at dripping-sweat level, the temperature ceaselessly in the 90s. If we're lucky, summer lasts only four months, but some years we are doomed to suffer from May to October. The roses become distorted and faded, their leaves covered with blackspot. Giant grasshoppers devour amaryllis leaves within seconds. There are piles of laundry, as we deceive ourselves into believing fresh shirts will make us feel better. Our cars turn into heat capsules, and the deck smells like a mass of rotting organisms.
All summer produce is marvelous, of course, and we buy luscious Alabama peaches from roadside stands, pick cucumbers and squash from our friend's generous garden. But anyone can do that. You have to live in south Louisiana to eat Creole tomatoes.
The Creole tomato is grown only in certain parts of south Louisiana, where the soil is just right. It can be large or medium-sized, and has an imposing corona at the top. No corona? Not a Creole. I start thinking about Creole tomatoes some time around March or April. I try to recall the exact look and taste of this sweet, fleshy, robust fruit. Then I enjoy a kind of maddening anticipation of the season, forgetting for a moment that the misery of heat and humidity is soon to come.
Lee Bailey, in his lovely little tomato cookbook, talks about his boyhood in north Louisiana. When school was out for the summer, he would take the train to his grandmother's house in the central part of the state. When he arrived, she would always be standing there with a glass of homemade lemonade and a Creole tomato sandwich, one she had made for him as a welcome gift.
And what a marvelous gift it was. Everyone has her own idea about what the ideal Creole tomato sandwich is, and they are all good. This is how I like to make mine: I buy the giant tomatoes when I can get them, because one slice is exactly the size of a standard slice of bread - white bread, thank you - from the grocery store. I spread mayonnaise on both sides, place my huge tomato slice on one piece, give a liberal sprinkle of fresh-ground black pepper, then cover with the second slice of bread. That's it. I don't want to taste anything but the tomato.
Some people insist on homemade mayonnaise, others like to spread thin slices of garden-fresh cucumber on top of the tomato. Some like salt. The Creole tomato is considered perfect for the BLT. I don't eat meat, but I buy a tofu bacon substitute that tastes just like bacon, and then I, too, can enjoy a BLCreoleT from time to time.
And when do you eat a Creole tomato sandwich?
As often as you can! I have one for lunch almost every day during the summer. No, wait, I eat one and a half because you truly can't eat just one. It's also common for a Louisianian to eat a Creole tomato sandwich as a pre- or post-prandial snack. The general rule seems to be: Eat as many as you can. And make sure you have a napkin, because the ripe fruit drips all over the place.
Of course, there are other wonderful things to do with these tomatoes. I make salads of slices, tossed with green onions and homemade vinaigrette. Sometimes I chop my Creoles coarsely - I have never bought into the ordeal of peeling and seeding tomatoes - and toss them with extra virgin olive oil, fresh-ground pepper and lots of chopped basil from my herb garden. Sometimes I add some pieces of fresh mozzarella, then serve the whole thing over pasta, with a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Itís fine over room temperature pasta, but also very good as a cold pasta salad.
And sometimes, I just like to slice a tomato, put a little pepper on it, maybe some salt, and eat it plain.
The Creole tomato is such a bright red that it sometimes looks more like a painting of a tomato than an actual fruit. It's okay to admire its beauty, especially if you are practicing the skill of delayed gratification, but most of us can't look for very long - there is eating to be done.
There are many fine tomatoes throughout the world, and many glorious tomato recipes. A tomato sandwich is a treat anywhere, as long as the fruit is ripe and reasonably sweet. But you can't eat a Creole tomato sandwich unless you come to Louisiana. And if you come to Louisiana in the summer, you will be miserable.
Copyright © Diane E. Dees 2002. This essay originally appeared in Moondance. Title graphic: "Tomatoes" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2002.