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The World's Cheapest (and Best) Sandwich

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Food writers can be, by nature, a hoity-toity lot, and frankly, we've done much to inflate the down-home prices of what has heretofore been nothing but old-fashioned, country-style American food. In fact, we often take pleasure in glamorizing the fantastically mundane just by being extremely specific about the most basic of ingredients. Grilled cheese and bacon has evolved into pan-grilled Shelbycorne cheddar and mesquite-smoked, nitrite-free, thick-cut, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin on artisan-baked sourdough; corn on the cob (best eaten immediately after a three-minute swim in boiling water) is now showing up everywhere roasted on the grill, slathered with a paste fashioned from organic, dry-roasted chipotle peppers blended with high milkfat, European-style cultured sweet butter specifically from a grass-fed Vermont Holstein named Loretta who prefers the southwestern corner of her grazing field for the afternoon sun.

The upside to this, of course, is multifold: it's raised our collective consciousness regarding what our food is (a good thing to know since melamine has made an appearance on our gastronomic stage) and where, exactly, it comes from; it's increased the support of our independent farmers; and it's mainstreamed high quality food (rather than the fast food dreck that seems to have permeated our society like crooked politics). The downside is, unfortunately, price.

I've always said that simple is best, and while my food colleagues and I absolutely do agree that even the most ordinary of dishes becomes stratospherically better when made with the finest, freshest ingredients, the finest, freshest ingredients are often neither enormously expensive nor particularly fancy. Very often -- especially at this time of year -- they are right at our fingertips and are therefore overlooked, which is the case with the fillings for The World's Cheapest (and Best) Sandwich. Rich with seasonally exquisite mid-summer flavor, color and luscious ripeness, bursting with contrasting textures -- and cheap as all get-out -- this particular sandwich is perfect, old-fashioned food meant to be eaten al fresco at a picnic table, or better yet, while sitting alongside the nearest tomato plant. Preferably, your own.2007-08-14-secondtomato.jpg

As a New Yorker, I had no experience preparing this sandwich and eating it in my tomato garden until I witnessed my partner doing it. The day was steaming hot and, staring out the backdoor sliders at our thriving mid-August vegetable garden, I could see her lugging a small cutting board, a knife, a jar of mayonnaise and, tucked under her arm, a loaf of Pepperidge Farm Sandwich White. Moments later, Susan was perched on the end of one of our vegetable boxes, eating what she has taught me is one of life's finest, most indulgent gastronomic pleasures: a sandwich of soft white bread, the freshest sun-warmed tomato pulled off the vine and sliced thick, and a light sweep of mayonnaise. The bread got squishy, the sweet, tart tomato juice dribbled down her chin -- if it hadn't, she would have wanted a different tomato - - and the mayo coated everything in a nice, flavorful glaze of oil and egg. She considered adding a little salt and pepper, but thought better of it. The result: sheer culinary magnificence.

If you're lucky, this entire meal will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 cents for the two slices of bread (based on the going price of $2.19 for a loaf), plus an eighth of a cent for a teaspoon or so of the mayo. The tomato, if you've grown it yourself, is free (if you don't include the sweaty cost of planting). If you're city-bound, or you have no access to tomato plants, head to a farmer's market and buy what's fresh: if you can find heirloom tomatoes, all the better.

Naturally, you can fancy things up a bit: toast or grill the bread (and make it fresh, high quality, artisanal sourdough) and rub it with a sliced clove of garlic; spread your bread with aioli or a teaspoon of pesto; add a small fistful of fresh basil leaves and a slice of extra-sharp cheddar; make things a bit more peppery by adding some arugula, or go way over the top and include a few thinly sliced rounds of crispy pancetta. But if you're like me, you'll go easy on the accoutrements. The sweetest part of this splendid tomato sandwich is its simplicity, which, when the thermometer is on the rise, is the greatest gift of all.

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