Photograph by Avin CP via Unsplash

A conversion story

April 23, 2024

I have a confession to make to you, dear reader. One that may cause my “Southern Appalachian membership card” to be revoked, ripped into pieces, and tossed into the Cape Fear River.


For the longest time, I wasn’t a fan of tomato sandwiches.

Somewhere, Chef Sean Brock just shed a tear and let out an expletive.

Growing up on the land of my maternal grandparents, I’d watch with a “bless your heart” expression plastered to my face as my kinfolk devoured thick slices of the edible berry from the Solanum lycopersicum plant. They’d stand triumphantly in their kitchens, sweat still clinging to their shirts from the recent trip to the family garden, rip open a plastic bag of Meritta White Bread, and start in. With “light bread” at the ready, they’d gather the remaining supplies and construct their soggy creations.

First, two sinful slatherings of Duke’s Mayonnaise on both slices.

Second, those dripping wet hunks of tomato.

Third, a couple pinches of salt.

Lastly, enough fresh cracked pepper to make you reach for dental floss afterward.

I’d watch in horror and astonishment eating my SpaghettiOs while they inhaled the first of many tomato sandwiches. Sometimes, it was all they ate for lunch or supper.

“Just try it,” my grandmother would plead.

“It’s mush,” I’d say. “Look at the bread.”

“It’s not mush. We had liver mush on Monday,” she’d say.

I developed acid reflux at an early age just listening to her say “mush.”

It was the same every year. If lightning bugs signaled the proper start of summer, tomato sandwiches carried my family through the remaining humidity-filled months. By September, the beast within them had met its sacrificial quota and lumbered off satisfied until the next harvest year.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I continued to work my way through Kid Cuisines, Count Chocula cereal, and personal pan pies from the fine dining halls of Pizza Hut.

My family continued their garden-to-table evangelizing, some of which stuck. Snapped green beans and fresh corn appeared beside my salmon biscuit. Southern culinary indoctrination came in other forms: real cornbread, sweet tea, pinto beans, and the holiest of holy pastries – Krispy Kreme doughnuts. My kindred jumped for joy, their prayers answered, when they discovered I held the gene for appreciating properly cooked and seasoned stone-ground grits — butter, salt, pepper, and never, under any circumstances, sugar.

Still, every July, their expressions of supplication turned into frustration as I rejected their bounty of Big Beef and Early Girls.

Bewildered and ashamed, some would mutter, “What’s wrong with that boy?”

Like a responsive litany, someone else would chime in, “Poor feller doesn’t know what’s good.”

By the time I was out of high school, my resistance was legendary.

A person’s world gets bigger when they leave the nests they always knew. My life has been no different. Like St. RuPaul, I sashayed away from my family’s tobacco farm and into a larger city where I lived with several friends who, bless their hearts, actually chose to eat cornbread with sugar in it. Such heresy makes me hope God is a universalist.

I dated women who were cultured, and by cultured, I mean they liked sushi instead of Steak-umms. In trying to impress them, my palate became more diverse. Sure, there were still items I’d pass by on a buffet table, but I had reached a stage where I was willing to try anything.

Even the tomato sandwich.

Often, the smallest things, like a mustard seed, can cause one to see the bigger picture. For me, that small thing was a tomato. That is why I implore you to consider the tomato for Earth Day this year.

I don’t remember the year; maybe I’ve blocked out the trauma in order to move forward, but I do recall that, without a shadow of a doubt, the tomato was store-bought. A random red sphere of mass-produced blandness from a farm thousands of miles away.

“It’s tasteless and watery,” I said. “It’s like Jello without any of the benefits. This is what y’all have been fussing about? I’ll stick with a plain mayonnaise sandwich.”

And I did for a few more years.

It wasn’t until I ate a cherry tomato off the vine while walking around Wake Forest University’s campus garden that my eyes opened like Saul’s on the way to Damascus.

Succulently sweet, the burst of exploding juice sunk its teeth into me as quick as a copperhead’s strike. My head was left dizzy from its flavorful venom.

This was one of many conversion experiences that caused me to care about what I eat. I became infatuated with knowing where my food came from, how far it had to travel, and whether it was ethically sourced before it came to rest on my plate or in my bowl.

I’m not talking about getting acquainted with my fowl à la Portlandia’s Colin the Chicken, but I did want to know if the people growing and raising my food were treating the land and animals they tended with a certain level of respect and a sense of stewardship.

I didn’t know at the time to call this caring for the environment, and I didn’t realize the theological implications of creation care. I had yet to make the connection between my food and climate change, greenhouse gases, industrial farming, and land justice. I knew little, if at all, of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Dan Barber, Ellen Davis, and Heber Brown III.

But I do now, and it has changed the trajectory of my life.

Often, the smallest things, like a mustard seed, can cause one to see the bigger picture. For me, that small thing was a tomato.

That is why I implore you to consider the tomato for Earth Day this year. Summer planting is right around the corner, and you’d do well to have a row or two of Sunny Golds and Brandywines. And if tomatoes aren’t your thing, find another vegetable that makes your thumb green.

And if you, like me, need a little more time to come around to the goodness of tomatoes, know this: Me and mine are praying for you to know “what’s good.”

Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Opinions and reflections are his own.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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