I always think of Harry when tomatoes are mid-summer ripe. I don’t remember Harry’s last name, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. He was tall, rail thin, probably in his sixties but I suspect he looked older than he really was. Harry had a craggy sort of face with a crooked smile, and big white teeth. His piercing light blue eyes were set deep in their sockets. He loved to hike, and years of sun exposure had permanently tanned and weathered his skin. His mane of white and gray hair was wild enough to catch me off guard each time I saw him, but it suited his personality.
It is tomato sandwiches, not his hair that was Harry’s real trademark. A couple of times a week all summer long, he would park next to my craft shop located on Main Street in a small, friendly town in southwest Virginia. Harry would amble onto the side porch, yoo-hoo through the screen door, then make himself comfortable in one of the four rocking chairs. Unlike other kinds of businesses, if you own a craft store, customers and friends feel entitled to stop by to sit and chat. It doesn’t matter whether they are in the mood to purchase something or not. I looked forward to seeing Harry drive-up in his old, beat up little yellow car.
Harry didn’t come to see me, shop, or visit. He came to town to sit in the shade, eat a tomato sandwich, and people watch. Harry considered the making and eating of tomato sandwiches an art form. He firmly believed no one else could make one as well as he could. He would carefully remove a basket of “fixin’s” from the back seat of his car. He used the kind of basket sold at a roadside stand full of peaches or apples – thin oak slats with a wide handle. The basket held paper plates, thermos of coffee, a loaf of bread, mayonnaise, a large ripe tomato or two, an ordinary knife for spreading, and a large sharp knife for slicing.
Now, these items may not seem special or unusual – after all, it is just a tomato sandwich. But Harry had strong opinions about each ingredient that went into his sandwich. The bread had to be pre-sliced, store bought, white, loaf bread. Better quality than cheap Sunbeam white that is best for rolling into a ball for cat fishing, but not fancy bakery style or multi-grain bread. His mayonnaise was Kraft regular, not lite or non-fat. And the tomatoes were always red, homegrown, and vine-ripe. Sellers now refer to these as “heirloom” tomatoes so they can charge more. Harry made two sandwiches with plenty of mayonnaise, thick slices of tomatoes, and a little salt and pepper. No sprouts, no cheese, no cucumber, no nothing, just a summer tomato sandwich. With juice running down our chins, Harry and I enjoyed many yummy sandwiches over the years. Each bite a burst of rich summertime flavor.
Harry never ate tomatoes out of season or bought one at a grocery store. To my knowledge, he never fried a tomato or ate little cherry ones. I suppose Harry has long since died; I lost track of him when I moved to North Carolina. Thinking of Harry and tomatoes today, I have unexpectedly remembered his last name. Harry Smith, simple and straightforward, just like his sandwich. I found a big red, ripe tomato at the farmer’s market the other day. I don’t ever eat tomatoes out of season either. Thanks to Harry, I know how to make a really good tomato sandwich for lunch.