Tomato sandwiches

Sept. 1, 2012 – This is the time of year when we’re usually deluged with ripening tomatoes from the garden. To my mind, there are few things better to make with this crimson bounty than tomato sandwiches. And thinking about tomato sandwiches reminds me of days at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp in Long Island, where I first learned to make and eat them back in the early 1960s.

I have to give credit to the women who toiled in the camp kitchen, turning out three meals a day on a limited budget augmented by U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus foods such as powdered eggs and oatmeal. They tried to do their best with what they had to work with, in a sweltering kitchen in the middle of July. Usually the food was plain but good. But once in a while they would produce a dish like the dreaded baked eggs and macaroni casserole, made with flavorless USDA surplus powdered eggs, the top crust hard as rocks. This was a dish that could only be choked down with vast amounts of salt and catsup, if at all. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it even with catsup, although some of the other kids seemed to accept it. My brother usually made a mess of half catsup, half egg casserole, and devoured it without a problem.

Having been raised by parents who often went without food in a post-war refugee camp in Germany, I was lectured endlessly at home about not wasting food, cleaning your plate, and so on. My conscience didn’t dare accept a serving of the eggs-and-mac, only to leave it uneaten. On the other hand, I did want something for supper.

Alternatives to the dreaded eggs-and-macaroni casserole

At lunch and dinner, the long tables at camp were usually set with plates of sliced tomatoes and/or cucumbers, as well as small baskets of bread slices. Salt, catsup, mustard and butter were available, and sometimes jars of peanut butter and jelly as well. Sometimes, as an alternative to the main supper dish, they also set out cheese, bologna and salami slices, so there were alternatives if we didn’t like the regular meal. But on those lean days when eggs-and-mac appeared without cold cuts or peanut butter, we carefully buttered our bread and topped it with three or four tomato slices and dined on those.

I was an impatient kid and slapped on the butter any which way. My friend Rita, however, meticulously spread her butter evenly over every bit of the bread. I was usually finished by the time Rita was ready to take her perfect first bite. (This probably explains why Rita had a stellar career as a government banking official in Estonia when it regained its freedom, and why I’ve struggled to find work as a freelance writer since my journalism career came to a close 15 years ago.)

And once in a long while, when there weren’t tomatoes or cucumbers on the table, we made catsup sandwiches instead.

I love Bosco

In the morning, the kitchen ladies often served hot cooked oatmeal or farina. Some unsung genius among the campers developed the trick of stirring lots and lots of Bosco chocolate syrup into the farina to make it palatable. This bit of camp wisdom was passed down from camper to younger camper over the years. Bosco didn’t mix as nicely with the oatmeal, which we usually drowned in milk and sugar. Many of us who were kids in the early 1960s fondly remember Bosco and its rival product, Cocoa Marsh, which made drinking milk so much more enjoyable. I wonder when they disappeared from the stores.

Some little monster, at camp or elsewhere, came up with a parody of the Bosco TV jingle, “I Love Bosco”. It went:

I hate Bosco, Bosco’s bad for me.
Mommy put it in my milk to try and poison me.
I fooled Mommy. I put in in her tea.
No more Mommy, to try and poison me.

Every day a couple of campers were chosen for KP, which meant setting the tables for all three meals, clearing them afterward, washing down the tables, scraping leftovers into a slop bucket, and lugging that smelly bucket out to the woods to the solgi auk (slop hole) for disposal. This was a pit dug in the sandy soil, and covered over at the end of the camp season. One of the neat things about going to the solgi auk was the chance to spot frogs and other wildlife attracted to the food scraps. One of the not-so-nice things, at least to us girls, was the chance of encountering a snake attracted to the wildlife.

One year at camp, some of us felt duty-bound to made life harder for the kids whose turn it was at KP, particularly if we didn’t happen to like one or more of them. We made mini-slops. Someone would leave something on their plate and pass it to the next kid, who would add something else, and so on. The idea was to be as creative as possible. A really good slop would have a liberal assortment of potato pieces, Bosco syrup, cucumber slices, catsup, bread, milk, mustard, jelly and whatever else happened to be served at that meal. It was left at the table as a special “treat” for the hapless kids on KP to deal with.

Trust me, being on the receiving like of a slop was not fun, but there are worse things in the world.

And one of the best things in the world is spreading “real” mayonnaise, the light version, on a slice of good bread, and topping it with dripping fresh sliced tomatoes from your own back yard. A little salt, a little pepper. One bite, and you’re in Tomato Paradise. I can hardly wait for next summer’s tomato season already.

NOTE: This was supposed to be posted on Sept. 1, not in late October.