Monday, August 3, 2015

The Sandwich of Summer

With August comes an abundance of tomatoes in the Tennessee Valley, and throughout much of the country. And therein lies an interesting story. In the days before refrigeration, one of the most important methods of preserving meat was curing it with salt. Pigs were slaughtered during cool or cold weather, but once the meat was salted down, it could be kept for months. Thus, it was possible to enjoy a bacon and tomato sandwich in August in Tennessee, even though hog-killing time is January. The combination of bacon and tomato (lettuce was added later to create the BLT) was so popular that investors would buy up salted pork bellies while they were cheap in winter, and then hold them until tomato season when demand for bacon could be counted upon. It has only been a few years since pork bellies were an investment vehicle on the commodities market. Refrigeration made bacon available at any time of the year, and the opportunity for significant profit evaporated.

Refrigeration also made iceberg lettuce available year round, and the spread of the technology seems to coincide with the history of the BLT. The sandwich was probably not around prior to 1900, but by the 1950s it was being mentioned in the popular media of the time, such as the Saturday Evening Post. Today, it is considered by some to be second only to the ham sandwich in popularity with Americans.

In the prime tomato country of the upper South, and the Tennessee Valley in particular, tomatoes have been an important crop for decades, certainly long before refrigeration was commonplace here.  It seems likely that a sandwich of bacon and tomato, with or without a garnish of leafy greens, was a favorite here well before the BLT became famous. And of course a lot of folks would not have had bacon. The simple tomato and mayonnaise sandwich has long been revered in this region, and recently made the cover of Garden and Gun.

Growing iceberg lettuce in Tennessee in the summer is impossible. What, therefore, is the gardener to grow with which to garnish the beloved BLT? If you plan ahead, you can have several options for summer lettuce substitutes. Malabar spinach is easy to grow and productive. Another possibility is basil. Large-leaved varieties like 'Mammoth' are perfect. If you grow sweet potatoes in your garden, you can also harvest their leaves to add to a sandwich now and then. The leaves of nasturtiums taste like watercress. Also consider green onion tops, chives, and squash blossoms. In all cases, younger, smaller leaves are likely to be the most tender and tasty.

Not growing any of these? Try sprouting some alfalfa or growing some microgreens. Either one is ready in about a week. You can grow sprouts right on the kitchen counter, if you like. Purchase seeds intended for sprouting. They are available at Three Rivers Market, Earthfare and other natural foods stores. A tablespoon of alfalfa seeds will yield about a quart of sprouts, which will keep a week in the refrigerator after sprouting. Microgreens can be grown in a variety of containers, such as those plastic clamshells that berries come in. Unlike sprouts, microgreens are grown in a soil-like medium. Typically, seeds are sown thickly and the plants harvested a week or so after germination. Microgreens require more light than sprouts, which will green up in indirect light. Microgreens need a south-facing window or an artificial light source for best results.

With a little imagination, you can improvise upon the classic BLT to discover your own favorite summer sandwich. Because the recipe is so simple, quality ingredients are important. Here is my favorite recipe:

Ultimate Knoxville Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

Yield: 1 sandwich

2 slices sandwich bread from Flour Head Bakery, white or wheat as you prefer
Duke's mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
1 slice of tomato, preferably homegrown and vine ripened, or more as desired
2 slices Benton's bacon, cooked to your desired degree of crispness
1 or 2 fresh basil leaves
2 or 3 fresh nasturtium leaves
2 tablespoons alfalfa sprouts

Spread one side of each slice of bread with mayonnaise and top with a few grinds of black pepper. Place the tomato on one slice. Break the bacon into pieces and place it on top of the tomato. Add the basil, nasturtium leaves, and alfalfa sprouts, and top with the other slice of bread.

Serve the sandwich with potato chips and vegetable pickles.

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