Three ingredients, all vying for the top

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By Jon BonnéJonBonné

Just try asking out loud which ingredient in a BLT is the most important: the bacon, the lettuce or the tomato. The debate will occupy your whole evening.

And we didn’t even mention the bread or mayo.

Its history may be shrouded in mystery, but the BLT holds a proud place in American culture. BLT sandwiches can be found in every corner of the nation, a simple treat for rich and poor alike. The Southern Foodways Alliance recently celebrated the BLT at its summer event in Nashville, Tenn., and put out a call for recipes for “the post-modern BLT.”

Its secret is that perfect balance of the salty bacon, crisp lettuce and fresh tomato, but ratios vary. That, perhaps, has given rise to endless bickering about what matters most.

“You just need a really good tomato that’s not mealy, that has a really good tomato flavor,” says California chef and author Michele Anna Jordan. “That’s the difference between an average BLT and a really great BLT.”

Jordan certainly can weigh in with an informed view.  Not only did she author “The BLT Cookbook,” she also holds the (still unofficial) record for the world’s largest BLT: 108 feet long. Its preparation at a 2003 tomato festival was heralded with a parade of ingredients, complete with a Mayo Queen.

For her, the need to find a fresh beefsteak tomato (they have, she says, more flesh and fewer seeds) means that the BLT is by definition a seasonal treat – arriving with the ripening of tomatoes on the vine, and retreating with the autumn breeze.

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Other views hold weight, though. Edward Lee, the chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., puts his money behind the quality of the bacon — which should be dry-cured and sliced thick.

“Your general supermarket bacon is not going to cut the mustard,” says Lee, who spent years preparing BLTs as a diner cook when he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bacon’s texture is a matter of preference: Some like it a bit crispy, some love it tender. The key is to get it crisp enough that you don’t come away from your sandwich with a strip dangling from your mouth. Fry up as much bacon as you can reasonably fit between slices of bread.

Don’t bother debating which bacon reigns supreme. Most states have their own top smokehouses; each has its advocates.  Lee sides with Benton’s, from Madisonville, Tenn., while Jordan is partial to R.M. Felts Packing Co. from Ivor, Va., or natural bacon from Niman Ranch.

Next up: the L. Iceberg is a favorite, but brings more texture than flavor. Bibb (aka Boston) or oak leaf seem like good bets. Even arugula is just fine — anything but romaine, which is a bit too bitter and unwieldy for this task. Shockingly, food writer Ed Levine not long ago had the audacity to claim that lettuce was “superfluous.”

BLT classicists are quick to smother that theory. “You need that little bit of opposite temperature and texture,” Jordan says.

Texture’s also key for the bread. White bread like Wonder is a classic pick, but whole wheat, sourdough or a crusty country bread work fine, so long as it can be lightly toasted and doesn’t overpower the three main players. “You don’t want some whole-grain hippie bread,” Jordan says. “The bread is a stage.”

Spreading controversy

Mayo, oddly, may be the most controversial ingredient. Modern BLT lovers can do no wrong with good store-bought mayonnaise, specifically Hellman’s (Best Foods west of the Rockies). Aioli works just fine. But some BLT lovers insist the best mayo is homemade.

Growing up in the tony Belle Meade section of Nashville, Tenn., Margo Kenney was assigned a regular duty come BLT time: churning together Wesson oil and egg yolks, with a bit of lemon juice and paprika.

“I can’t tell you how many times all the other kids were outside playing and I was at the kitchen table making mayonnaise,” recalls Kenney, now a real estate agent in Santa Monica, Calif.

A countervailing opinion, notably from certain corners of the South, holds that a BLT requires Miracle Whip. But Miracle Whip has one big drawback: It’s slightly sweet, thanks to the addition of both sugar and corn syrup. By definition, that changes the BLT’s taste. “My mother used to say: If you put sugar in your cornbread then it’s cake,” Kenney says, indignant. “And it’s the same thing with mayonnaise.”

As with any food, simplicity breeds invention.  Variations on BLTs are everywhere, including versions with salmon and trout.  Jordan has devised recipes for BLT pasta and BLT soup. Lee serves a foie gras-laced derivation at his restaurant. “It’s like a BLT on prom night,” he says. “It’s all dressed up.”

Sometimes, though, simplicity has its virtues. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the tomatoes, slice your sandwich in two, and enjoy.

610 BLT

Chef Ed Lee, 610 Magnolia, Louisville, Ky. via the Southern Foodways Alliance