If it’s not summer, don’t you dare try to slip Pat Martin a slice of tomato. The pitmaster doesn’t suffer flavorless, out-of-season produce — especially tomatoes.
“There should be a law passed by congress that tomatoes are only allowed to be eaten when they're in season in your area,” he says. “This BS of picking tomatoes on the West Coast green, gassing them in a truck, and sending them to us or anywhere else. They're just grainy and tasteless. It's an insult to a tomato, really.”
But during the three to four months of summer when tomatoes are in season and Martin can find fat, multi-hued heirlooms at the farmer’s market, or pluck his own from one of the 93 tomato plants in his garden? He’s a very happy man. And he and his family will be tucking into one of his open-faced grilled tomato sandwiches.
“We make it every summer, every weekend,” he says.
Martin is the founder and owner of Martin’s Bar-B-Que which has 10 locations (seven in Tennessee, one in Kentucky, one in West Virginia, and one in South Carolina) and legions of devotees. He specializes in West Tennessee Whole Hog barbecue and is one of a few pitmasters preserving the endangered regional barbecue style. (Compared to the more well-known South Carolina version, West Tennessee whole hog, he says, uses larger hogs, which are pit-cooked using hickory wood, and the meat is not chopped but pulled and the various sections of the pulled meat are not mixed together. When served on a sandwich, the pork is topped with slaw and a sweet, but still peppery, vinegar sauce made from a combination of cider and white distilled vinegar.)
Martin has dedicated himself to the craft of pit cooking and his new cookbook — he prefers to call it a “procedure book” — Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse, is a passionate, engaging, and approachable guide to the many ways of working with fire. The 320-page book, co-written with Nick Fauchald and beautifully photographed by Andrew Thomas Lee, is organized around a fire’s lifespan (from building a fire —“Birth” — to cooking with embers and ash —“Death”). It includes recipes for everything from grilled summer squash and pit-cooked pork belly to charred sugar snap peas and cold-smoked duck breasts. And, yes, it includes a detailed guide to every step of pit-cooking a whole hog the West Tennessee way.
Seeing as Martin spends his days sourcing ingredients, spatchcocking hogs, and working the pit, it’s not surprising that when he cooks at home for his wife Martha and their three children, he rarely if ever makes barbecue.
“I don't eat a lot of it unless I'm actually at one of my friend's places, because I'm around my own stuff all the time. It’s not that I consciously say, ‘I don't want to do it,’ I just don't. But you’ve gotta separate yourself from the work,” he says. “When I cook at home, I'm either braising something or I'm cooking vegetables. I really, really, really love cooking vegetables.”
That love is easy to spot in his open-faced grilled tomato sandwich recipe, which he first made at Martha’s request (hence the name) and is included in Life of Fire. A thoughtful play on the southern summer staple, it sees heirloom tomatoes sliced, as Martin says “about as thick as a Bic pen”, grilled on both sides until slightly charred, placed on a thick piece of grilled, mayonnaise-painted sourdough bread, and topped off with light, flaky salt and a sprinkle of toasted hemp seeds.
“I want the tomato to speak for itself,” says Martin. “Everything else is complementary to it, no different than a barbecue sauce is complementary to whatever meat you're cooking.”
The sandwich is a big hit with everyone, including Martin’s children Wyatt (12), Daisy (15), and Walker (16). It’s easy to understand why: there’s the smoky, charred tomato, the creaminess of the mayonnaise, the crunch of the bread, the texture of the hemp seeds (“They’re not a gimmick,” he emphasizes. “They really bring a subtle nuttiness to it that really kind of rounds the whole thing out.”)
It also helps, if, like Martin, you enjoy it in the right circumstance.
“I'm telling you, man, this sandwich in the summer with a good glass of champagne for lunch? It really is pretty dog gone tough to beat.”
Martha’s Open-Faced Grilled Tomato Sandwiches
Makes two open-faced sandwiches.
- 1 large heirloom tomato (use a meaty, sweet variety, like Cherokee Purple or Brandywine)
- 2 tablespoons hemp hearts or pumpkin seeds
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Fleur de sel or other flaky salt
- 2 thick slices sourdough or country white bread
- Mayonnaise (Duke's brand strongly preferred), to taste
Cut the tomato into 3⁄4-inch-thick slices. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 30 minutes.
In a small skillet, heat the hemp hearts over medium heat, tossing constantly, until the hearts start to turn brown and smell nutty, 2 to 3 minutes, but trust your eyes and nose more than a timer. Remove from the heat and toss the hearts for another 30 seconds, then transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Prepare a medium-high grill. Clean and oil the grill grates well.
Brush both sides of each tomato slice with the olive oil and season with the fleur de sel. Grill the tomatoes until lightly charred on one side, about 3 minutes, then flip and grill until the other side is lightly charred, about 3 minutes longer. Meanwhile, brush both sides of the bread with mayonnaise and grill until toasted, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
To assemble, spread more mayonnaise on one side of each piece of toast. Top with a tomato slice and sprinkle with toasted hemp seeds and fleur de sel. Serve.