Every summer, as soon as I spy the first really good tomatoes at the farmers market or in my own garden — the ones you can smell before you even get a chance to taste them — I buy the biggest ones I can find. Then I stop at a supermarket on the way home to get something I reserve for just this occasion: squishy white bread. And, if I don’t have it at home, I make sure to also pick up a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise.

This is how Southerners think about the tomato sandwich. Including salt and pepper, it’s a five-ingredient, juice-running-down-your-elbow homage to the season’s crowning glory, and we don’t want anything to distract our attention from the object of our affection. Go ahead and add your cheese, your basil, your bacon, your ricotta, your avocado — all those are nice, but they are not a Southern tomato sandwich.

Unlike me, so many other tomato-sandwich fans have an arsenal of childhood memories to drive their nostalgia for the thing-and-nothing-more-than-the-thing. As Rick Bragg wrote in Southern Living, “I grew up carrying tomato sandwiches in a paper sack to work or to the river to fish, wrapped in wax paper or in wrinkled, twice-used aluminum foil, which we treated like a precious metal. I guess because it was shiny.”

That nostalgia leads to the choice of bread, too. “Southerners have had tomato sandwiches their whole life,” cookbook author Virginia Willis told me, “and when you had them as a kid there wasn’t a whole lot of artisan bread around. I love artisan bread, but not when I want a tomato sandwich.”

I was born in Georgia but raised in Texas, and my Midwestern mom would no sooner make us tomato sandwiches than she would try to grow tomatoes herself. But I possess loads of nostalgia for squishy white bread, and for mayonnaise, too. In fact, my favorite sandwich as a kid consisted of nothing more than those two ingredients.

Moreover, I made up for lost time in the Southern-cooking department as an adult, especially once my sister Teri started schooling me in some of its touch points — such as baking drop biscuits in a sizzling cast-iron skillet, serving mint juleps in a frosted silver cup, and slicing and stacking the perfect proportion of tomato, bread and mayo for the world’s best sandwiches.

Teri’s preferred method is to take her largest biscuit-cutter to the market and find tomatoes that match its size so she can use it to cut rounds out of white bread that line up just right with each red slice. She sprinkles the tomatoes with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, and, take it from me, her sandwiches are things of beauty.

I don’t use a biscuit-cutter, and my seasoning is limited to good old salt and pepper. But I do employ a similar sense of purism about the general strategy. The tomatoes have to be very ripe, in-season specimens, preferably heirlooms. And they need to be big enough to fill the bread without the kind of layering that leads to dreaded tomato slippage. Ideally, the tomato slices are the same thickness (about a half-inch) as the slices of bread, and the amount of mayonnaise is a generous tablespoon on each side of the sandwich. You want the mayo and the tomato juices to mingle; the sandwich should be as juicy as the best tomato but not soggy, which means you should eat it immediately.

What brand of mayo? Well, even though I grew up with Hellman’s, I threw down the gauntlet for Duke’s at the beginning of this piece, while my Louisiana-native colleague Ann Maloney wouldn’t think of eating hers with anything other than Blue Plate. You would think Willis would also be a Duke’s fan, and she is, but she told me that when she lived in Massachusetts and had to mail-order Duke’s, she started using the vegan Just Mayo and loved it, so she’s stuck by it. “I like the way it tastes, but I also like that it’s contrarian,” she said before chuckling for what seemed like a solid minute at the idea of a writer known for books such as “Secrets of the Southern Table” calling for a nontraditional mayonnaise.

Willis and I agree on another important point. Right before I called her, I made and ate one tomato sandwich after another — you know, to get in the spirit — and at the end of our conversation, she said, unprompted: “The other thing is, I eat two. I will without any hesitation whatsoever eat two of the sandwiches we’re discussing in succession. It’s indulgent, but the season of the perfect tomato sandwich is so limited it’s a small indulgence.”

I wiped the last of the lingering juices from my chin and told her: I couldn’t agree more.

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  • 1 large ripe heirloom tomato (at least 14 ounces), stemmed and cored
  • 8 slices soft white sandwich bread
  • 8 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s or Blue Plate (may substitute a vegan brand such as Just Mayo), divided
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, divided
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Step 1

Use a serrated knife to cut the tomato into 1/2-inch slices. Spread one side of each bread slice with 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise. Lay a tomato slice on the mayo side of four bread slices. Sprinkle each with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a little pepper. Cover with the mayo side of the remaining four bread slices. Cut each sandwich in half, if desired, and eat immediately.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (1 sandwich)

Calories: 318; Total Fat: 20 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 15 mg; Sodium: 780 mg; Carbohydrates: 33 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 8 g; Protein: 5 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From Food and Dining editor Joe Yonan.

Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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