Holy Tomato

This morning there were two dozen homegrown tomatoes on my doorstep. I arrived home to see Piggly Wiggly bags hanging from my doorknob, and I almost lost control of my lower extremities.

It’s a little early for tomato season, but this is Florida, and apparently someone got an early jump on the horse race.

I come from country people. And country people regard tomatoes as holy things. We get excited about items like tomatoes. Deeply excited.

We are the kind of people who show our love in non-obvious ways by using things like vegetables, casseroles, love notes, Dairy Queen products, saturated fat, and passive aggression. Sometimes we use all six.

I saw no note attached to these tomatoes, which struck me as odd. A secret tomato-admirer, perhaps.

I brought the bags inside. I opened them. There were tomatoes of every shape and color. Yellows, greens, reds, and even rich purples the color of eggplants.

Purple tomatoes, my mother once told me, are magic tomatoes. “You’ve hit the tomato jackpot,” my mother would say, “if you come across a tomato so full of magic that it’s turning purple.”

Well, I have a thing for tomatoes, magic or otherwise. I’m crazy about them. My mother used to grow them in the summers of my youth. If I close my eyes I can still smell the greenery in her garden. Her small patches of tilled earth were surrounded by chicken wire and human hair clippings.

The clippings were mine. Back in those days, my mother used to cut my hair with dull scissors on our back porch. In fact, this was a primary reason for my traumatic childhood. Because my haircuts were a cross between Bozo the Clown and a regulation cue ball.

Often, people at school would say things like, “Hey, who cuts your hair? Ronnie Milsap?”

Directly after my weedwacker haircuts, my mother would gather hair clippings into a dustpan and scatter them in her garden to protect her ‘maters. The idea was that a human scent scares away vermin like raccoons, rabbits, and various spouses.

And it worked like a charm. Her tomatoes were county renowned.

Thus, my earliest memories are of overflowing baskets loaded with bright reds, yellows, and magic purples. I’m talking tomatoes so plump they require PG-13 ratings.

So anyway, now you know how country people show their love. Homegrown okra, collards, zipper peas, purple hulls, white corn, green peanuts. And of course, unwashed heirloom tomatoes.

These days, a man can’t find garden-grown fare just anywhere. Most tomatoes, for instance, don’t come from gardens, but from nuclear facilities in Beijing. The tomatoes you get at the store are pink atrocities that taste like possum flop.

So when a man finds a real tomato, he must seize the moment. Which is exactly what I did. The first thing I did was prepare a tomato sandwich the same way my ancestors have been doing since the invention of the rock.

My family has long standing rules for tomato sandwiches, which are simple:

—Start with Colonial, Bunny, or Sunbeam bread. In a pinch, Wonderbread will do, but try not to make it a habit. Also, leave whole grains out of this party.

—For mayo: Duke’s or Blue Plate. Avoid Miracle Whip, which science has proven is not actual mayonnaise, but sweetened industrial pump lubricant. And here’s another tip: always use more mayonnaise than your doctor says you should.

—Lastly, your shirt should be ruined by the time you’re finished eating a tomato sandwich. If the shirt is not rendered disgusting, repeat above steps until garment looks like you’ve been in an amateur knife fight.

It might sound silly, but these tomatoes make me remember things. They make me remember the sort of folks I come from. And they make me remember how things used to be, long before people texted at stop lights.

A simple tomato helps me recall a time when the only electronic devices we had were made by Whirlpool, Hoover, or General Electric. A time when people still read Sunday papers and actually cared about the classifieds. When the only coffeemaker my mother used was a Corningware percolator.

A time when love wasn’t sent via email, text, status update, or poo emoji, but in Piggly Wiggly bags of produce on your doorknob.

Speaking of which. I reached into the Piggly Wiggly bag and I found a note written on a piece of legal paper. I must’ve missed it earlier.

“Dear Sean,” the note read. “I got these for you, I thought you’d enjoy a brightened day. Love, Anonymous.”


Dear Whoever You Are, I wrote this column for you. It’s nothing compared to the sanctity of a tomato, but it will have to do, because right now I need to go change my shirt.

Love, Sean.


  1. Mark D MacIntyre - May 18, 2021 7:27 am

    Well this is North Carolina and we have a while to wait to enjoy such lusciousness schmeared with some Duke’s!

  2. Leigh Amiot - May 18, 2021 9:56 am

    After you’ve had home grown tomatoes, especially heirlooms, store bought won’t do! I go to a produce stand located in an old farmer’s market building and say how pretty the squash are, just like my Grannie used to do. Selecting fresh produce from such bounty gives me back a piece of myself from last century when my mother would buy corn, peas, and beans by the bushels and take it home to “put up” in the freezer. One of my treasures is a blue gingham tablecloth with a hole in it that Grannie used to “look the peas”—spread out freshly blanched peas and look for duds. Wholesome times.

    • Audrey Giarratano - May 24, 2021 11:52 am

      Leigh, I don’t know how many bushels of peas I helped my grandmother shell. She brought them home from the Panama City Florida Farmers market, just like you describe. We froze them in her huge chest style freezer in small plastic bags that fit into small waxed boxes. I don’t even know if they still make those boxes.
      Good memories. Made me remember picking peas and strawberries with my mother in Plant City, Florida. Even as an adult it felt good that my mother was impressed with my pea-picking speed! Thanks for jogging my memory.

  3. Lander - May 18, 2021 10:27 am

    I got to see my mom for the first time in several months this past weekend. She’s a busy woman. They’ve had hailstorms twice in Oklahoma that have ruined her tomato plants. She had to take my wife and me out to show us her third planting of tomatoes. It’s going to be a while before we get any, she said, since they’re getting put out so late. But she proudly showed me the thirty young plants she had put out. She’s planning ahead and looking forward to sharing some love.

  4. flagal44 - May 18, 2021 10:40 am

    We six kids ate my mother’s tomatoes still warm from the sun. She put salt in a twist of Cut-Rite waxed paper, taught us to tear a hole in the bottom and eat the tomato like an apple, salting after each bite. This was all done outside—far too messy a process to bring indoors. Best tomatoes I’ve ever had.

  5. Leslie in NC - May 18, 2021 10:53 am

    I’m in North Carolina as well and although I’m not a huge tomato fan, I do like one fresh from the garden sliced on a “tomato plate” like my grandmother had on the table for every meal, with S & P and a little dollop of Duke’s. And fried green tomatoes, oh yeah!

  6. Shannon Moore - May 18, 2021 11:07 am

    Garlic salt! Don’t leave off the garlic salt!!!!

    • MermaidGrammy - May 18, 2021 12:09 pm

      Love comes in many forms: From writing to a bunch of people you’ve never met to getting those great tomatoes. Can’t wait for “my Tomato Lady” on Old Peachtree in Suwanee to start putting her sign up indicating tomatoes grown in her backyard are ripe and ready.

  7. Bob Brenner - May 18, 2021 11:12 am

    Cherokee Purples a slice of heaven! 🍅

  8. Tim Smith - May 18, 2021 12:07 pm

    I didn’t see salt to taste and enough pepper to turn the red ones slightly purple in your recipe.

  9. joan moore - May 18, 2021 12:09 pm

    Sean, one ingredient: yea or nay: salt?

  10. Jane - May 18, 2021 12:21 pm

    There is nothing better than a fresh tomato sandwich .. hands down !

  11. Rev. Dr. Dennis Stalvey, aka preacherdennisthestoryteller.com - May 18, 2021 12:28 pm

    Way back yonder when I first went into the ministry and the Methodist Church required us to obtain some theological education, we would arrive at Emory University in Atlanta and do several things. First, we went to the bursar’s office to pick up the little stipend the Methodist Church scraped together for us to live on for four weeks. Second, we went to a rent-all place and rented a little shoe box refrigerator. Third, we went to the Kroger and bought four things, a loaf of bread, some mayo, some Vidalia Onions, and some sliced dill pickles. All of this went to make a sandwich which included some of the tomatoes we brought with us from home. One of the preachers introduced us to this sandwich by saying, “This is a poor preacher’s sandwich.” Our churches abided by a saying which said preachers should be poor and humble. “Lord, you keep em humble and we will keep em poor.” 45 years later I am still eating those poor preacher sandwiches. Sean, you ought to think about writing a recipe-cook book and including a section of the Proper Southern Ways To Use A Mater.

  12. Heidi - May 18, 2021 12:32 pm

    Just got all my baby plants in the ground. They’ve been growing up in my sunny living room for a few months. Two days after planting we got a quick hail storm. Don’t you know husband & I were running around covering with sheets to save the babies! They made it & all is well.

  13. Helen De Prima - May 18, 2021 12:53 pm

    Sean, you should have mentioned Cherokee Purple tomatoes and their little brothers, Black Cherry. Very few Black Cherry tomatoes — garden candy — make it into the house. I dust them off with my shirttail and snack on them while weeding, mulching, watering, suckering and stalking tomato horn worms. You’re so right: cultivating tomatoes is a religious rite.

    • Betty - May 18, 2021 1:55 pm

      I have to mention that we had a beautiful little heirloom cherry tomato plant (I don’t know the variety) a number of years ago which we planted along a border in our yard. It was full of blooms and produced the most perfect little tomatoes. Our beagle, who loved fruits and vegetables, adopted this particular plant and regularly harvested the fruit from it! As soon as any tomatoes began to ripen, that dog got her nose in the plant and ate away. Because we had other plants to pick from, we let the dog have this one. She enjoyed its fruit until frost. I guess we are silly dog lovers but she loved the tomatoes and it was all but impossible to keep her out of the plant. I didn’t relish the idea of eating after her anyway, so she got her own plant. After that, we learned to be more selective about planting where she could harvest!

  14. Debbie g - May 18, 2021 1:05 pm

    Love story 😀enjoyed

  15. Sandra - May 18, 2021 1:41 pm

    Love your columns even though some cause me to miss family, the neighbors and friends of my childhood, and the kindness of people — especially the kindness of people.

  16. Betty - May 18, 2021 1:45 pm

    My mouth is watering! I always keep a knife really sharp just for peeling those tomatoes because the sandwich is perfect only when the peel is left on the countertop! Thanks again for the memories your column evokes. I can see my mother peeling and slicing tomatoes, then teaching me to do the same.

  17. Tina Montalbano - May 18, 2021 2:23 pm

    OMG, my mouth was watering as I was reading this. I remember my dad’s home grown tomatoes. My immigrant dad’s vegetable garden was wonder which he put so much work into and totally loved.. Where I come from Staten Island NY was like country, way before the Verrazano bridge connecting Brooklyn to SI was built. I’ve tried growing them myself down here in central Florida and still can’t get the look or the flavor. I miss those heirloom tomatoes. Oh, and BTW, you forgot to add a shaker full of salt to that tomato sandwich…and what’s wrong with Wonder Bread!!!

  18. Christina - May 18, 2021 2:39 pm

    If tomatoes can speak, they’d tell stories like these and bring back lots of happy memories.

  19. Paul Moore - May 18, 2021 2:39 pm

    Hey Sean. When I moved to Nashville 9 years ago my biggest concern was no more Garden no more homegrown damaters. But I retired last year and made me a nice raised bed garden. Enjoying new potatoes right now and the mater plants are looking good. Give it a try. I can’t wait for a sandwich. Your right about the bread for these your and my hero Lewis G. said any bread that wasn’t white was like eating a roofing shingle.

  20. Shirley - May 18, 2021 2:56 pm

    Love it! I can just picture what looks like blood dripping from our face and chin onto your shirt.

  21. John Skelton - May 18, 2021 2:56 pm

    I’m afraid I can’t share your love of homegrown tomatoes. It’s not that I don’t like them; I do, just not on sandwiches. They make the bread soggy. But I will eat them on a plate.

    The other problem I have is with people who say they can tell the difference between homegrown and store bought tomatoes. I can’t, but I think my problem is I’m a McDonald’s gourmet. I love the McRib, but without pickles and French fries layered over the meat. So no, tomatoes taste the same to me no matter where they’re from!

  22. Ken Baker - May 18, 2021 2:57 pm

    I’m encouraged to learn that others utilize Dairy Queen like I do, especially turtle pecan Blizzards. Thanks for a great Tuesday Morning laugh. I’m still contemplating possum flop.

  23. nashrrg - May 18, 2021 3:37 pm

    Here is a great song to listen to while you eat that mater sandwich. It’s by Guy Clark, one of the best song writers, ever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tj4wIKMqEE

  24. Gary - May 18, 2021 3:39 pm

    Can’t wait , here in East Tennessee 2 more months 😋😋😋

  25. Jan - May 18, 2021 3:48 pm

    Love this and love good tomatoes too!

  26. Steve McCaleb - May 18, 2021 4:01 pm

    Sean, I know today’s column is about tomatoes but I think it may be about a whole lot more than that. To me…. the tomatoes are great yes, but the real story is about a connection we feel. To the land, to times past, but mostly to people a lot of whom aint around anymore. At today’s prices prices my conservative estimate is that during the last years of his life, my dad gave away about 28 million dollars worth of tomatoes. Or that’s the way I tell it anyway. That would be okay with him. He always cared way more about other folk’s needs than he did his own. Thank you for the memories my friend.

  27. Patricia Gibson - May 18, 2021 4:15 pm

    Nothing taste better than a homegrown tomato sandwich. Hard to get good tomatoes anymore.

  28. Sandra Wolfe - May 18, 2021 4:22 pm

    Where did those days go? I remember them well and my mouth waters for a tomato sandwich. Thank you for sharing your story.

  29. Ron Mahn - May 18, 2021 5:37 pm

    Green Peanuts aka Boiled Peanuts … man, that’s a memory walk into my childhood! Salted and boilded till you could just eat the hull and all, with that incredible squish of “peanut juice” in the mouth,that was something to look forward to every mid summer! Even tho ‘ I have been told Oklahoma is in third place nationally for peanut production, almost no one out here as even heard of this prized delicacy! Thanks Sean for that prompt!

  30. Linda Moon - May 18, 2021 9:44 pm

    Homegrown tomatoes and “The Pig” (aka Piggly Wiggly) are two of LIFE’s best offerings. Why do people text, Sean, instead of using a human voice to actually TALK to the other human they are trying to communicate with? Why, I ask you, why? So, thank you, Anonymous, for delivering bags from The Pig to Sean. I was reminded of LIFE and all the good that comes with it this morning. I almost stopped by The Pig on the way home from my Health Care Heroes who had me hostage inside a big round tube for a while. When they released me, communication via kind words from actual voices were spoken! Heroes and tomatoes are Holy, and I wish I had stopped by The Pig. There wouldn’t have been homegrown tomatoes there, but the store is full of friendly employees who talk, not text, to happy shoppers!

  31. Sondra - May 18, 2021 11:09 pm

    Tomatoes, soft white bread, Dukes mayonnaise, salt and pepper, fresh Lays potato chips and sweet tea. The best meal ever!!

  32. Karen Holderman - May 18, 2021 11:14 pm

    There is too much shade at my house. The gift of that is a cooler backyard and amazing wildlife. My fresh tomatoes come from our local farmers and are delicious. My dad always kept us supplied with tasty tomatoes. I miss him and do have wonderful memories of his fabulous gardens. I would add a little bacon to that tomato sandwich.

  33. Bill - May 19, 2021 12:59 am

    The thing I remember about tomatoes and growing them was the smell of the green vines. But so what. As you said, the taste of a tomato fresh off the vine was the Cat’s Meow. Big beefsteak tomatoes sliced onto toast with bacon and Miracle Whip. Sometimes in a triple deck sandwich. It included some lettuce in there somewhere . A bacon tomato lettuce sandwich. It didn’t get any better than that.

    I would grow a row of tomatoes in cages to hold the plants up. Maybe 10-12 plants. Also, I grew Roma tomatoes and the Grape variety. The only problem with these is they never all got into the house. I would eat them while working in the garden.

  34. Jane Mobley - May 19, 2021 2:21 am

    Sean – for a different twist on a BLT, substitute some basil for the lettuce. Tomatoes and lettuce are never ready from the garden at the same time, but tomatoes and basil are. Basil is also a companion plant to tomatoes, so it enhances the flavor. That is unless you just hate basil. This trick was taught to my mg group by a retiring extension agent of 40 years who said that it was the most important thing that he had learned in farming in Alabama in all that time.

  35. Debra - May 19, 2021 3:21 am

    Bliss is a tomato, warmed by the sun, right out of the garden. Oh, and reading your columns every day.

  36. Kate - May 19, 2021 1:12 pm

    This is why we all love you and the stories you write. If anyone has ever had a ripe tomato that was homegrown, and a tomato sandwich, which definitely requires WHITE bread and mayo, they have most likely known amazing people who were kind, loving, productive, strong and caring. Thank you Sean for always reminding us what is important,

  37. Janene - May 19, 2021 5:39 pm

    YUMMY! I LOVE TOMATOES! Growing up my dad knew that the FIRST tomato ready on the vine was MINE! I had a salt shaker hidden under the row of bushes that separated the garden from the back yard. Best time to eat them. Fresh from the vine, warmed from the sun, with salt. Thanks for sharing your memories!

  38. Robert L Chiles - May 19, 2021 8:34 pm

    Your story of the hair trimmings reminded me. We had a garden years ago, and the rabbits kept getting the young plants, especially the broccoli sets. My neighbor tried putting mothballs out as a deterrent and even built little fences out of briers (the rabbits are still laughing at that one). So I asked my mother what would work. She said SHOOT EM!!!

  39. Dee F.Hoomes Wichman - May 20, 2021 12:00 pm

    I, too, grew up in the country where fresh vegetables were the rule and we ate what wasn’t eaten at lunch for dinner. Peas, beans, okra all cooked together with some fried okra, squash, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and corn bread. I called sliced bread, light bread, because the only time we ate it was for our tomato sandwiches. Biscuits for breakfast and corn bread for lunch and supper. Damascus was home and always will be. You can take the kid out of the country but you never take the country out of the kid. Keep on keeping on!

  40. Joanne Viola - June 30, 2021 12:03 pm

    Home grown tomatoes always bring back one of my most cherished memories. A dear older woman, in hospice care, asked me to sneak some in as I visited her daily. She knew we grew our own. I had to sneak them in with a knife and salt 🙂 To see her sit up, slice it, salt it, and enjoy every last bite with a smile on her face is something I will never forget. You are so right, Sean – they are holy and messy – even on a hospital johnnie 🙂


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