Summer is the season for tomatoes

By Justin Reedy

Red and sweet, fried and green, the filling of a sandwich or a dish all by themselves n no matter which way you serve them, the South is in love with tomatoes.

The juicy, bulbous red vegetables (or fruits, depending on who you ask) are available year-round, but show their true form in summer months.

That's when vines in neighborhood backyards around the Southern Crescent start to sag under the weight of homegrown tomatoes before being shuffled off to kitchens for devouring, whether as fried green tomatoes, topping for a sandwich or hamburger, or that most simple of Southern delicacies, the tomato sandwich.

Clayton County resident Doug Peters, a certified master gardener, grows tomatoes behind his house but also tends to tomato plants he's growing as part of a garden for the Clayton County Aging Program's Adult Day Health Center.

The trick to good tomatoes, Peters says, is an even amount of water. And plenty of sunlight. And a good fertilizer. And maybe crushed-up eggshells and coffee grounds, though those are optional.

The crop from the tomato plants at the Adult Day Health Center, which is tended by Peters and the rest of the Shelnutt Senior Center's gardening club, have struggled with insects this year. Peters' garden at home has had much better results, but he hasn't had the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor just yet, because deer that live in the woods near his house have eaten almost every tomato he has grown so far.

"I think I've eaten one tomato all year," Peters said with a laugh.

Though some local residents grow their own tomatoes, others head for the grocery store or the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park to get the summertime staple.

During the first six months of this year, the farmers market has sold more than 42,000 boxes of Georgia-grown tomatoes n or about $424,000 worth n and has sold more than one million boxes of out-of-state tomatoes with a total price tag of about $12.5 million.

"We do eat a lot of tomatoes here in Georgia," said Arty Schrome, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

For Forest Park resident and former state legislator Jim Wood, the best way to eat those tomatoes is a plain old tomato sandwich n a part of traditional Southern cuisine that became a standard in Wood's political campaigns of the 1970s and '80s.

While running for the state House of Representatives in the 1970s, Wood's race was sent into a runoff, and he came up with an interesting idea to distinguish himself from his opponent.

"I felt like I needed something different to add a little zip," Wood recalled.

That's when he wrote a newspaper column decrying barbecue parties as too expensive and watermelon parties as too messy n why not serve tomato sandwiches, he said. The modest sandwiches became popular in the South during hard economic times, Wood said, since it was cheap to grow tomatoes in your own garden, slice them and serve them on plain white bread.

Local residents quickly took to the idea of serving the simple dish at a political rally, and the annual Jim Wood Tomato Sandwich Party was born.

After leaving political office, Wood later turned the parties into fund-raisers for local charities. He'll continue that tradition Aug. 16 when he holds a Tomato Sandwich Party to benefit the Good Shepherd Clinic, a free health care facility in Morrow for uninsured Clayton County residents.

Wood likes being able to use his former political trademark to help a worthy cause such as the privately-funded Good Shepherd Clinic. Tickets to the event, which will be held at the home of Wood and his wife Martha in Forest Park, are $10.

In addition to the standard tomato sandwich ingredients n sliced tomatoes, bread and mayonnaise n partygoers can try Vidalia onions, deviled eggs, fresh fruits and homemade cookies. Since the food and drinks for the party are donated, almost all of the proceeds will go directly to the clinic. For more information about the party, call Dr. Thomas Kelley, the clinic's director, at (770) 968-6386.

People attending the party are welcome to make their tomato sandwich however they see fit, but Wood, who describes himself as a purist when it comes to the classic Southern summer sandwich, likes his to be simple.

"The perfect tomato sandwich varies from person to person," he said. "Mine is tomatoes, mayonnaise, bread and that's it. A lot of salt is good, but not so much pepper. You want to use real mayo, too, not the light kind. And white bread, preferably some that's a day old or more, so the sandwich doesn't get too soggy."

Served with some deviled eggs, pickles and potato chips with a glass of iced tea, he said, and that's the perfect lunch.